The National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, a creation of the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, spent five years studying prison rape and has recently proposed standards for eliminating it. The report is a sad, disturbing read.
Not only does sexual assault make the environment within correctional facilities more dangerous and insecure, it leaves devastating mental, emotional and physical scars on individuals who are eventually released from prison. It is a hindrance to rehabilitation and successful re-entrance to the community. And often, we – the public – are financing it. In a survey conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more prisoners reported abuse by staff than by other inmates. Victims and witnesses are bullied to keep quiet, and even when they do speak out, their reports are often dismissed. It is not entirely unsurprising to me that authoritarian-types who hold power over confined individuals would sadistically abuse that power, but it’s sickening nonetheless.
Naturally, certain members of the imprisoned population are more at risk than others. Those who lack experience in correctional facilities, inmates who are small in stature, and young prisoners are frequent targets of sexual abuse by other prisoners. The sexual abuse rate is higher for imprisoned youth than for adult prisoners; youth incarcerated with adults are at the most risk. Whilst girls represented 15 percent of confined youth in 2006, they made up 36 percent of all victims in substantiated incidents of sexual assault that year.
Non-heterosexual and gender-nonconforming individuals are at extremely high risk for abuse. Male-to-female trans people are typically placed in men’s facilities when they are imprisoned. As you might expect, the results are not pretty. Lesbian and bisexual women are disproportionately represented among women who reported being sexually assaulted; male officers pose a particularly high danger. Research indicates that some officials believe that homosexuality equals consent to sex acts with other men; in turn they may ignore those incidents. So, rape myths are impediments to justice for those in the prison system as well as those outside. Inmates with physical and mental disabilities or illnesses are more vulnerable, as well. Being imprisoned exacerbates oppression for those who are already marginalized.
The standards set by NPREC focus on prevention, detection and response to sexual assault. Priorities include educating inmates about their rights, instituting stricter hiring policies, efficient supervision, commitment to zero tolerance and banning cross-gender searches except in emergencies. I think bringing gay, trans and disability rights activists, juvenile advocates, and sexual abuse experts from diverse backgrounds into the fold at correctional institutes is an important step in achieving the goal of reducing prison rape and better serving victims when it occurs. Last week’s report does stress the necessity of taking inmates’ risk factors into account when placing them in cells and programs. I am glad people are having a conversation about this issue and I hope this report leads to some real action.