Sexual Violence Behind Bars


While the Justice Department waits to impose new correction standards on sexual violence, a new national survey shows that rape in prison is a growing problem.

The numbers are in: Since 2007, the number of reported prison rapes has increased by 4,000. Female offenders are twice as likely to be sexually victimized as males and two-thirds of male inmates have been victimized by female staff, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics survey released today. Although some believe the figures underestimate the problem, the report is widely believed to be the most accurate survey of prison sexual violence to date.

The report, comes as the Department of Justice is two months past the legal deadline for enacting national Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) standards set by the commission developed to address these growing and troubling trends.

“The report continues to confirm this is a nationwide human rights crisis that needs to be addressed,” said Lovisa Stannow, Executive Director of Just Detention International, a Los Angeles based national not-for-profit that helped pass PREA legislation. “The national standards that have not been finalized have the potential to become most important tool to end sexual abuse in prison.”

On August 20th a broad coalition, including the ACLU, the American Conservative Union, Focus on the Family and the NAACP, wrote a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder urging him to adopt the standards, which advocates say could bring a halt or significant slow down in prison rapes if correctly utilized.

In 2003, as awareness of sexual violence in prisons grew, the U.S. Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act. Under the law a national commission, National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, was formed in 2004 to create standards to prevent and detect incidents of sexual violence in prison. The group issued a report including new guidelines and standards in June 2009. Attorney General Holder was required to enact by June 23, 2010.

But June 23 came and went. In a letter Holder expressed regret at not being able to implement the commission's standards by the required date. He wrote: ” I believe that it is essential that the Department take the time necessary to craft regulations that will endure.” Holder was concerned that prisons and jails do not have enough funding to implement strict new standards, which include staff training and inmate education, medical and mental health treatment for sexual abuse victims, and regular independent, external audits to hold agencies accountable for failures to keep inmates safe from abuse.

A month before the June deadline, the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA) sent a letter to the DOJ outlining their concerns with PREA implementation. While ASCA stressed their commitment to ending rape and abuse in prisons and jails, they were concerned about the standard's lack of transparency, possible false allegations duplications of audit, the difficulties of restricting cross gender body-searches, and the cost of complying with the standards. The association estimated it would cost $1.9 billion to uphold the standards nationally.

“It is better for the DOJ to take the time to get it right and we have every confidence they are doing just that,” wrote ACSA Co-Executive Director George Camp in an emailed statement to The Crime Report.

But Pat Nolan, Vice President of Prison Fellowship, a national faith based organization that serves prisoners and their families and has been actively involved in PREA legislation, disputes ACSA's cost estimates.

“They just pulled those numbers out of air,” said Nolan, who said Oregon and California implemented these standards with putting any more strain on their budgets.

“Frankly,” he said. ” Most of these standards are basic common sense. Provide medical care. Secure your facilities. Treating rape as a crime.”

In July 2009, the State of Michigan agreed to pay $100 million to settle a class-action suit by more than 500 female prisoners who said they were sexually assaulted by prison guards. Nolan points out that money spent defending abuse litigation could instead be spent on implementation of PREA standards.

According to the new BJS report, an estimated 88,500 inmates experienced sexual victimization in 2008-2009. Females are twice as likely to be victimized as males, and incidents occur almost three times more often in prison than jails. There were 64,500 incidents of sexual violence in prison and 24,000 in jails.

Just Detention International (JDI) said they receive 40 letters a week from survivors of sexual abuse in detention asking for help.

“Its important to remember that these are fellow human beings who are behind bars and should not be subjected to sexual abuse,” said Stannow.

Picture via Arizona Prison Watch.

Correction Appended: Female offenders are twice as likely to be raped as males has been changed to emale offenders are twice as likely to be sexually victimized as males

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