Panel Sets Guidelines For Fighting Prison Rape

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 23, 2009

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.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company