Coming before President Bush’s desk soon will be the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, which passed both houses unanimously last Friday. From a press release from Human Rights Watch, which was instrumental in the crafting and passage of the legislation:

“For far too long the United States has ignored the brutality of prison rape,” said Jamie Fellner, director of Human Rights Watch’s U.S.Program. “Sexual violence – indeed, any violence – should not be part of anyone’s prison sentence. This legislation puts prison staff on notice that they can no longer turn a blind eye to rape.”

The Prison Rape Elimination Act would initiate a series of efforts to track and curtail the incidence of rape in prisons and jails.
The legislation requires the collection of national statistics on the prevalence and effects of rape; directs the Department of Justice to provide training and technical assistance to federal, state and local officials responsible for addressing prison rape; authorizes federal grants to support state and local programs to prevent and punish prison rape; and provides for the reduction of federal prison funding for states that do not control prison rape. The National Prison Rape Reduction Commission, a federal body created by the legislation, will spearhead the creation of a comprehensive report on the subject and issue recommendations to be
used by the Attorney General in generating national standards to detect, prevent, and punish prison rape.

“The unanimous passage of this bill is an extraordinary accomplishment,” said Fellner. “If implemented fully and effectively, it will be a first step towards ensuring that prison sentences are not sentences to sexual violence and abuse.”

HRW wrote a damning report on prison rape, No Escape, in 2001.

A Florida prisoner whom we will identify only as P.R. was beaten, suffered a serious eye injury, and assaulted by an inmate armed with a knife, all due to his refusal to submit to anal sex. After six months of repeated threats and attacks by other inmates, at the end of his emotional endurance, he tried to commit suicide by slashing his wrists with a razor. In a letter to Human Rights Watch, he chronicled his unsuccessful efforts to induce prison authorities to protect him from abuse. Summing up these experiences, he wrote: “The opposite of compassion is not hatred, it’s indifference.”

…Prison authorities, unsurprisingly, generally claim that prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse is an exceptional occurrence rather than a systemic problem. Prison officials in New Mexico, for example, responding to our 1997 request for information regarding “the ‘problem’ of male inmate-on-inmate rape and sexual abuse” (the internal quotation marks are theirs), said that they had “no recorded incidents over the past few years.”
…Yet prison authorities’ claims are belied by independent research on the topic. Indeed, the most recent academic studies of the issue have found shockingly high rates of sexual abuse, including forced oral and anal intercourse. In December 2000, the Prison Journal published a study based on a survey of inmates in seven men’s prison facilities in four states. The results showed that 21 percent of the inmates had experienced at least one episode of pressured or forced sexual contact since being incarcerated, and at least 7 percent had been raped in their facility. A 1996 study of the Nebraska prison system produced similar findings, with 22 percent of male inmates reporting that they had been pressured or forced to have sexual contact against their will while incarcerated. Of these, over 50 percent had submitted to forced anal sex at least once. Extrapolating these findings to the national level gives a total of at least 140,000 inmates who have been raped.

An internal departmental survey of corrections officers in a southern state (provided to Human Rights Watch on the condition that the state not be identified) found that line officers — those charged with the direct supervision of inmates — estimated that roughly one-fifth of all prisoners were being coerced into participation in inmate-on-inmate sex. Interestingly, higher-ranking officials — those at the supervisory level — tended to give lower estimates of the frequency of abuse, while inmates themselves gave much higher estimates: the two groups cited victimization rates of roughly one-eighth and one-third, respectively. ….

It’s a relief to know that stopping prison rape, at least, is a human rights cause that none of our legislators are willing (publicly) to stand against. The passage (once signed) of this legislation is an important step. There are more difficult ones to follow.

Counterpunch has several strong pieces on the topic.

Joanne Mariner:

The hostility with which some prison authorities reacted to the draft legislation suggests the extent of the official unwillingness to acknowledge the problem of prison rape. According to Reginald Wilkinson, head of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction — which is, ironically, one of only two state prison systems to retain the now old-fashioned concept of rehabilitation in its name, if not in its practices — the idea that prison rape is common is “a flat-out lie.”

Steve J.B.:

The Prison Industrial Complex is supported by tax dollars. It operates the way that it does because people don’t object. I was in prison for shoplifting. Should I have been locked in a cell with a guy twice my size and weight who was doing life for a violent crime?

I don’t object to having been incarcerated for committing a crime. But I don’t think it was right that I was made a gift to another inmate.

I don’t think that “Prison Bitch” is a very funny song.

Alex Coolman:

Martha Stewart’s name hasn’t been dragged into this newest rape “joke” because she’s a woman and our society now understands that the rape of women isn’t funny.

But in Borowitz’ hands, the rape of men in prison is once again being treated as fodder for cruel, inane humor instead of what it really is: one of the most appalling, institutionally ignored abuses of human rights in this nation.

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