We’ve all heard the jokes, or perhaps the mean-spirited barbs about someone “getting what they deserve” in prison. Each year, 216,000 adult and juvenile inmates are sexually assaulted, compared to 238,000 people living outside of prison. Sexual assault in America’s penal system is far too common, and disproportionately impacts gay and transgender inmates. It includes any rape or sexual assault that occurs in prison, whether it is committed by an inmate or a staff member. There are many who believe that rape is an appropriate part of the punishment for someone who has committed a crime, or they simply do not care enough about inmates to give it much thought — but sexual assault is a crime that is wrong regardless of who the victim is. Rape is never an acceptable punishment for any crime — and our society must not tolerate prison rape.
Recognizing the enormity of the problem, the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) was enacted in 2003 with broad support from both political parties, religious leaders and civil rights groups. This law aimed to end prison rape with the creation of the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, which was charged with creating standards for the elimination of prison rape. PREA also authorized funding for research on the subject, and required that statistics on prison rape be published each year. But despite the lofty goal of eliminating prison rape, many critics charge that the Act has done little more than collect data on the problem, and that while the Commission studies the problem of rape, the actual rapes continue. Indeed, while the PREA national standards became effective in 2012, six states will lose a small portion of federal prison funding for refusing to comply with the standards. The remaining states have assured the federal government that they are in compliance with PREA — but do not necessarily have the data to prove that they are in compliance. Only New Jersey and New Hampshire have actually certified that they are in compliance with the standards. Importantly, states only lose 5% of their federal prison funding for refusal to comply with the standards, a relatively minor penalty that does not incentivize many states to ensure compliance.
A recent New York Times article highlights exactly how the refusal to comply with the PREA standards affects inmates. The story focuses on a transgender woman named Passion Star, who is serving a 20 year sentence in a Texas prison, and has been repeatedly sexually and physically assaulted. Texas is one of the states that refuses to comply with the PREA, claiming that it was “unnecessarily cumbersome and costly.” Texas also has one of the highest prison populations in the country — and by far, the most sexual assault and abuse allegations of any state (in 2011, Texas had three and a half times more allegations than California — despite the fact that California had more inmates). Ms. Star is currently suing the Texas Department of Corrections for failing to protect her from these assaults.
What can you do to join the fight against prison rape? First and foremost, you can speak up against jokes about prison rape, or any statement that implies that rape is an acceptable punishment for a prisoner. Rape is not funny, and it is always wrong — even when the victim is not sympathetic because of the crimes he or she may have committed in the past. Second, you can learn more about the problem of prison rape and join the fight to end it through organizations like Just Detention International. Lending your voice and your support to organizations such as Just Detention will help demonstrate that our society will not tolerate the rape and sexual assault of prisoners. Third, you can be part of the bigger solution, by getting involved with a local organization such as Blackburn Center. Together, change is possible!