This should be a Civil Rights issue adopted by the so called “black leaders” who are remnants of the Civil Rights era. It shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the high rate of AIDs in the black urban community is related to the high rate of incarceration of black males. It is another component of genocide…
When Bryson Martel was sentenced to six years in prison for check fraud, he was 28 years old, weighed 123 pounds, and was scared to death. He had good reason to be afraid. Within weeks of his arrival, he was beaten and raped at knifepoint. Martel reported the assault to staff, who moved him to “protective custody” – into a cell with a known rapist.
Days later, he was raped again.
Prison authorities should have taken particular care to protect Martel’s safety, knowing that he was a target for abuse. They didn’t, and the assaults continued. Over the course of nine months, Martel estimates he was raped by 27 different people. Ultimately, he was infected with HIV, and now has full-blown AIDS.
“I know I had to pay the price for what I did, but I’ve paid double,” Martel says. “That check I wrote cost me my life.”
Martel’s experience is far from unique. At least 60,500 federal and state prison inmates were sexually abused at their current facility in the preceding year alone, according to a 2007 nationwide study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). A similar study revealed that nearly 25,000 county jail detainees were sexually abused in the prior six months. This violence is not limited to adult prisoners – in January, another BJS report found that almost one in eight youth in juvenile detention reported being sexually abused in the preceding year; at the worst facilities, one in three kids were victimized.
No matter where it occurs, sexual violence shatters lives. Unlike rape survivors in the community, however, survivors behind bars often have no choice but to suffer in silence. Prison mental health counselors rarely have expertise in sexual assault, and they cannot provide confidential services. Because of the danger of being labeled a “snitch,” fear of retaliation, and lack of trust in corrections officials, most incarcerated survivors are too afraid to report an assault and so avoid the limited counseling available from prison staff. This, in turn, leads to long-term emotional trauma and untreated medical conditions.
Women behind bars, who may become pregnant from rapes committed by male staff, lack access to the full range of reproductive health options. Many victimized inmates are infected with HIV and other STDs, which are far more prevalent among prisoners than in the community at large. Yet corrections facilities often fail to provide proper screening and treatment for STDs. In short, sexual violence behind bars is a public health and a human rights crisis.
Disturbingly, many corrections officials continue to deny that sexual abuse is a problem in their facilities. Such indifference is reinforced by misguided public perceptions that prisoner rape is inevitable, or, even worse, a joke. “Guards knew what was happening and looked the other way,” says Troy Erik Isaac, who was raped at age 12 in a California juvenile facility. “People would take advantage of me and I just didn’t know how to get help.”
Officials are required to protect inmates in their charge. Nothing could be more grotesquely opposed to this responsibility than sexually abusing them. Yet the BJS reports consistently showed that staff –-not other inmates-–were responsible for most sexual victimization. Even more appalling, staff sexual abuse is particularly common in juvenile facilities, where the BJS found that corrections staff perpetrated more than 80 percent of the reported abuse.
Survivor Chino Hardin describes her experience in a New York juvenile facility: “The corrections officers allowed certain boys to enter the cells of girls that the officers did not like or said were not behaving well. I often heard girls screaming in fear at two or three o’clock in the morning. In my one month there, three different girls told me they were raped by boys who corrections officers allowed into their cells. I was terrified and did my best to keep a low profile so that I would not be targeted.”
Hardin’s story is heartbreakingly common, yet prisoner rape is preventable – it is not an unavoidable part of incarceration. While some facilities are plagued by sexual abuse, others are virtually free from it. Stopping sexual violence in detention is a matter of committed leadership, strong policies, and sound practices. For example, facilities that consistently separate detainees who are vulnerable to abuse (such as gay and transgender inmates) from likely predators are able to reduce sexual violence dramatically. Safe and well-run facilities make it clear to staff and inmates – in policy as well as practice – that sexual abuse simply will not be tolerated.
The Constitution bars corrections agencies from inflicting cruel and unusual punishment, and the Supreme Court has recognized that prisoner rape may amount to such a constitutional violation. In addition, rape and sexual abuse is illegal throughout the country. Nevertheless, prisoners and advocates face tremendous barriers when seeking to hold officials accountable for failing to protect inmates. For example, federal law requires inmates who have been sexually assaulted while incarcerated to navigate the full internal grievance process at their facility before going to court – no matter how complicated, unrealistic, or illogical that process may be. Any misstep and a judge must dismiss the lawsuit. The courts play a meaningful role in holding public institutions accountable for civil rights violations – absent this oversight, impunity reigns and prisoner rape flourishes.
But now we have a tool that could significantly improve safety behind bars. Last June, the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission issued recommended standards to address sexual abuse in all forms of detention. The federal Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, passed by a unanimous Congress, created the Commission and mandated the drafting of the standards.