A Prison Nightmare

A federal commission offers useful standards for preventing sexual abuse behind bars.

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

WHEN T.J. PARSELL was sentenced to four years in adult prison in 1978, he was 17 years old. Less than a day after he arrived, a group of inmates forced him to drink Thorazine and raped him. For years too traumatized and terrified to come forward, he testified years later that the rape "had stolen my manhood, my identity, and part of my soul."

Mr. Parsell's experience mirrors that of thousands of other incarcerated individuals subjected to this ultimate form of pain and humiliation. A survey conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2007 revealed that 4.5 percent of prisoners -- almost 1 in 20 -- had experienced some form of sexual abuse within the past 12 months. Based on the national prison population, this represents more than 60,500 victims of abuse in the past year alone.

Given that nearly 1 in 31 Americans is now behind bars, on probation or on parole, prison rape is not just a problem of prisoners. Of the more that 2.5 million people incarcerated, more than 95 percent will return to society within the next 20 years, making prison rape, with its lasting, traumatic effects, a national concern. In 2003, Congress unanimously approved the Prison Rape Elimination Act, setting up a commission to study the problem and propose standards for eliminating it.

The standards released today are largely common-sense measures, beginning with a zero-tolerance policy. They focus on prevention, detection and response. Priorities include informing inmates about their right to freedom from sexual abuse, instituting more stringent hiring policies for correctional staff, taking into account inmates' risk factors for abuse when placing them in cells and programs, using efficient methods of supervision, and banning intrusive cross-gender searches except in emergencies. Leadership commitment to zero tolerance is crucial. In institutions where such commitment exists, many standards are already being met. Without it, even the most stringent standards will not guarantee prisoners' safety.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. should implement the standards, heeding especially the recommendation that an advisory committee on prison rape be created to offer continuing feedback and expertise. But eliminating inmate sexual abuse depends on more than executive action. Continued legislative support is essential, from providing financial support for programs dealing with sexual abuse behind bars to altering victim protection acts to include prisoners. Congress also must revise the clauses in the Prison Litigation Reform Act that require proof of physical injury and the exhaustion of administrative remedies, both of which impose needless barriers to justice for incarcerated victims of rape.

Prison rape is cruel and unusual punishment. The Supreme Court has repeatedly found that sexual abuse is "not part of the penalty that criminal offenders pay for their offenses against society." Eradicating it requires a change of mind-set as well as of rules. A culture that jokes about prison rape perpetuates the expectation that rape is a legitimate part of a prison sentence. It is not.

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