Today, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) released a new report on the epidemic proportions
of sexual abuse in U.S. detention. At least 88,500 prison and jail inmates were abused in a single year, according to the BJS, mostly by corrections officers. Some were victimized once, others again and again. On average, victims were abused three to five times apiece over the course of the year.
As appalling as these statistics are, they tend to obscure the true nature of what is at issue -
unacceptable and preventable suffering by human beings; our countrymen and family members.
Last week, like most weeks, Just Detention International (JDI) received some 40 letters
from survivors of sexual abuse in detention -- still behind bars, unable to get away from their
assailants, often forced to suffer through the aftermath of their abuse in silence and ongoing fear. One of them, Tom, wrote from a Nevada prison, "What do I do? Risk an attempt on my life and initiate an investigation, or keep quiet and endure?"
Female inmates reported more inmate-on-inmate abuse than men, while staff sexual misconduct was more prevalent in men's facilities. William in Texas also wrote to JDI last week, describing the lengths he had to go to in order to stay safe after being abused by an officer: "I would misbehave to get locked up [in solitary confinement] so I didn't have to deal with it." William has tried to commit suicide, and has not felt emotionally stable enough to tell his girlfriend of 12 years about the abuse.
Inmates with a history of sexual abuse and those who identify as gay or transgender were most
commonly targeted for victimization. In another letter received by JDI last week, James, an openly gay prisoner in Michigan who has been raped more than 20 times by numerous inmates
asked, "Do you know what it's like to see their faces each day? Seeing the look they give me?
Knowing that they smile and laugh..."
The new BJS study shows that men and women in both prisons and jails were more likely to be
abused by corrections staff than by other inmates; staff perpetrators were predominantly of the
opposite sex from the victim. Allowing staff unlimited access to inmates of the opposite sex --
including when they are in states of undress -- encourages sexual abuse. Yet, such cross-gender supervision remains standard practice in most U.S. prisons and jails.
Another inmate who wrote to JDI last week, Nathan in Wyoming, described an officer fondling
his genitalia while passing out medication. A nurse who observed the groping did nothing,
simply stating, "I know I didn't see what I just saw."
The good news is that we know how to prevent this type of violence. For the past 14 months,
the Justice Department has been reviewing straightforward, common-sense binding national
standards aimed at ending prisoner rape, developed by a bipartisan Commission of experts.
These much-needed measures include limitations on cross-gender supervision. They also call
for improved staff training and inmate education, the provision of medical and mental health
treatment to sexual abuse victims, and regular independent, external audits to hold agencies
accountable for failures to keep inmates safe from abuse.
By law, Attorney General Eric Holder had until June 23, 2010 to issue binding standards, but
he missed this deadline and no new date has been set. In the meantime, inmates continue to get sexually abused on a daily basis.
Each of the letters JDI receives represents an act of courage in itself. Shaun, whose location JDI
cannot reveal, wrote last week: "I've come to accept that I am a victim and a survivor of abuse
by corrections officers. I totally accept the retaliation I will receive from government employees
for speaking to you."
Sexual abuse in detention is a stain on our society. Every day that the Attorney General doesn't
finalize the national standards is another day of anguish among prisoner rape survivors, of
preventable safety breaches in prisons and jails, and of significant spending of taxpayers' money on medical treatment, investigations, and litigation that could have been avoided.
Mr. Holder must focus more seriously on the standards than he has so far. Above all, he must do so soon.