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Sexual Assault: Considering Those Most At Risk


This month’s emphasis on sexual assault awareness tends to ignore the trauma of one group of women who are among those least able to prevent attacks or defend themselves.

The Eighth Amendment of the Constitution forbids the imposition of all forms of “cruel and unusual punishments” by the government. But it failed to protect Hope Hernandez. In 1997, she was raped by a corrections officer in the hospital ward of a Washington, D.C., jail while undergoing drug treatment. The officer was never prosecuted.

While “Take Back the Night” marches and other awareness raising events occur for Sexual Assault Awareness Month on college campuses and in cities across the country, there is one particularly vulnerable population that should not be overlooked: the incarcerated. Prison rape is a pervasive human rights violation in the United States. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), 60,500 prison inmates and 24,700 jail inmates are sexually assaulted every year.

While incarcerated, women are at significantly higher risk for assault than their male counterparts. And according to studies cited by the Sentencing Project, the population of women in jail and prison has exploded in the last 20 years, increasing at nearly double the rate of men since 1985. Black women and Latinas are far more likely to be imprisoned than white women, and inmates of color—both men and women—report more incidents of abuse than white inmates.

Even without the trauma of sexual assault, the experience of incarceration afflicts both a woman inmate and her home community, particularly because 75 percent of women in prison are mothers. “Prison is very disruptive of the mother-child bond,” explained Tamar Kraft-Stolar, director of the Women in Prison Project. “Prison can often be devastating especially for families that don’t have the resources to have frequent and continual visits and contacts.” Kraft-Stolar pointed out that women’s prisons are often located far from the inmate’s home community, making constant communication with family and children even more out of reach.

An atmosphere of insecurity and terror inside the detention facility only makes women’s transition back to life on the outside that much more difficult. Female inmates are already more likely than male inmates to suffer from addiction and mental illness. Sexual abuse in jail worsens psychological problems in victims including self-destructive behavior and suicide. Rape in jails also increases the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Once released, inmates bring these diseases, as well as any increased mental instability, back to their communities.

Violence against incarcerated women is especially cruel because most serve sentences for non-violent, drug related offenses, often as accessories to partners who are drug users or involved in the drug trade. And many of these women have been brutalized long before taking their first steps through the iron doors. Ninety-two percent of women incarcerated in California reported having been the victim of physical or sexual abuse prior to their entry into custody, according to the ACLU.

Reform is urgent in many U.S. detention facilities. BJS found that, as in Hernandez’s case, most attacks against women are perpetrated not by other predatory inmates but by detention facility staff—the very people in charge of keeping inmates safe. This gross abuse of power leaves victims, literally, with no way to escape and no recourse. Guards have total control over the most intimate aspects of women’s lives and have the power to retaliate against inmates who report abuse by withholding privileges or issuing punishments, reports Amnesty International.

The abuse continues largely because of staff impunity. Even when inmates report the crimes, staff-abusers are rarely prosecuted. As Hernandez stated in testimony to the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission (NPREC) in 2005, “The guard was suspended, but nothing ever came of it. As far as I know, he’s still working as a corrections officer. I’ve never gotten any justice.”

The frustrating fact is that prison rape is preventable. BJS surveys revealed that assaults occur at high numbers in particular facilities and not at all in others, leading to the obvious conclusion that the management of a jail or prison has a major role in what happens within its walls. 

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder can stop the violence this year. The NPREC was created in 2003 by the Prison Rape Elimination Act. The commission members, including corrections leaders, advocates and former victims, worked for years to come up with a set of specific standards for reform and the prevention of prison rape. Holder has the power to implement the NPREC recommendations as early as this June bringing relief to thousands of inmates. However, he recently commissioned a cost projection study, which advocates argue is unnecessary and will simply delay enactment of the standards.

In a recent two part series on prison rape in The New York Review of Books, staff from Just Detention International (JDI) expressed concern that Attorney General Holder is being unduly influenced by corrections officers’ associations who are resistant to change and use cost as an excuse for stopping reform. Many of the NPREC recommendations have already been successfully implemented in Oregon. And preventative programs are less expensive in the long run than doing nothing. The Michigan Department of Corrections recently agreed to a $100-million settlement in a class action suit brought by 500 former female inmates who had been sexually abused. But regardless of the threat of lawsuits, human suffering is too high of a price to pay for another year of inaction.

More articles by Category: Violence against women
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