Nearly six years after President George W. Bush signed legislation to reduce prison rape, a blue-ribbon commission is calling on corrections officers to identify vulnerable inmates, offer better medical care and allow stricter monitoring of their facilities.
The National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, in a study to be released today, affirms that more than 7.3 million people in prisons, jails and halfway houses across the nation have "fundamental rights to safety, dignity and justice."
The number of rapes committed by detention staff members and other inmates remains a subject of intense scrutiny. A 2007 survey of state and federal prisoners estimated that 60,500 inmates had been abused the previous year. But experts say that the stigma of sexual assault often leads to underreporting of incidents and denial by many of the victims.
Too often, the report says, sexual abuse of prisoners is viewed as a source of jokes rather than a problem with destructive implications for public health, crime rates and successful reentry of prisoners into the community.
"If you have a zero-tolerance policy on prison rape and it is known from the highest ranks that this will not be tolerated and there will be consequences for it, that goes a long way in sending a message," said U.S District Judge Reggie B. Walton, the commission chairman. "Just because people have committed crimes and are in prison, that doesn't mean that part of their punishment is being sexually abused while in detention."
The panel hosted hearings and visited 11 corrections sites before issuing its report. Among the strongest recommendations: Staff members should be subject to robust background checks and given training, which could help victims of sexual assault secure emergency medical and mental health treatment.
Panel members are preparing to send their report to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who will have one year to prepare mandatory national standards. The recommendations will not bind state corrections officers, but states that do not adopt them will have their criminal justice funding cut, panel members said.
Jamie Fellner, senior counsel at Human Rights Watch, said the panel's recommendations are common-sense steps to prevent, detect and punish prison rape, not "pie in the sky" ideals. "This problem wouldn't exist with good prison management," Fellner said.
But the recommendations could pose a challenge for wardens who already battle crowding. Corrections officers, who according to inmate surveys commit a significant percentage of inmate assaults, also may protest more oversight.
Brenda V. Smith, an American University law professor who worked on the commission, said sexual abuse in prison "isn't just a random event that can happen to other bad people."
Instead, political protesters, people accused of driving under the influence of alcohol and substance abusers have shared harrowing incidents of rape while in custody, sometimes while spending only one night behind bars. "This is something that could happen to a kid who has no priors and who happens to make a mistake," Smith added.
Hope Hernandez said in an interview that she was raped multiple times by a corrections guard in the District years ago. She said she was suffering through withdrawal in a medical unit while she awaited sentencing on a drug-related charge. Hernandez said the guard led her to a secluded room while nurses slept.
Hernandez said she wanted to share her story to put a face on the problem of rape in detention facilities.
After her release on probation, she went on to earn a master's degree in social work. She said she remains unsettled that the guard's only punishment was a week-long suspension. But her work with foster children and substance abusers and her attendance at the White House signing ceremony for the prison rape bill brought her a measure of peace.
"I'm certainly not bitter over how long it's taken," Hernandez said of the panel report. "I think it's great that it's getting any attention at all."
Staff writer Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this report.
For complete summary, report, and other data from The National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, visit http://nprec.us/publication/
June 21, 2009 -- The Oregonian (OR)
OpEd: Rape Is Not Part Of The Penalty
By Max Williams and Lovisa Stannow, guest opinion
When the government removes someone's liberty, it takes on an absolute responsibility to keep that person safe, including from sexual abuse. This is a difficult task and, unfortunately, in prisons nationwide the failure of government agencies to uphold that responsibility is all too common.
Oregon is no exception. Sexual violence does occur in our prisons. What sets Oregon apart, however, is the Department of Corrections' effort over the last five years to end this type of abuse. The most recent initiative was launched through a unique collaboration between Oregon corrections officials and national human rights advocates.
On Tuesday, the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission is due to release the first-ever binding national standards aimed at preventing and addressing sexual abuse in U.S. prisons and jails. Mandated by the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, and developed with input from corrections officials, prisoner rape survivors, and advocates, these standards have the potential to become the most important tool so far in the effort to end sexual abuse in detention.
The national standards spell out requirements for prison housing decisions, staff training, inmate education, and sexual assault investigations. The U.S. attorney general has one year to issue a rule codifying them. Governors will then have another year to confirm that their states are in compliance with the standards. Those who fail to do so risk losing 5 percent of their corrections-related federal funding. That is not, however, why the Oregon DOC has made the bold decision to seek compliance with the standards even before it is required to do so.
The reason for that decision is simple: Sexual abuse in detention is wrong. It is an affront to our society's basic values. It causes terrible harm to survivors and creates unsafe prisons for staff and inmates alike.
In order to become an "early adopter" of the standards, the Department of Corrections has entered into a partnership with Just Detention International, an organization whose mission is to end sexual abuse in detention. Starting in 2008, DOC officials and JDI staff have worked to identify strengths and weaknesses in DOC policies, as well as in day-to-day practices at three prisons -- Oregon State Correctional Institution, Coffee Creek Correctional Facility and Snake River Correctional Institution.
JDI experts have trained prison staff in sexual violence awareness, interviewed inmates and identified areas where the DOC is out of compliance with the standards. Working together, we have made concrete improvements, adding training modules, creating inmate hotlines, and improving the information that prisoners receive upon arrival in prison.
The problem of sexual abuse in detention is deeply rooted and will not go away without a fight. There undoubtedly will be setbacks, but it is a battle that we can win. That is what Congress acknowledged in 2003 when it passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act. That is what today's national standards make clear, and that is what the DOC and JDI have recognized by working together.
Now, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder must send an important signal about the urgency with which we need to address prisoner rape. He can do so by ensuring that the standards provide the tools and protections Congress intended.
Whatever crime someone has committed, rape must not be part of the penalty.
Max Williams is director of the Oregon Department of Corrections. Lovisa Stannow is executive director of Just Detention International.
For complete summary, report, and other data from The National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, visit http://nprec.us/publication
Also visit our "Prison and Police Abuse" section.
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