States are Totally Ignoring This Sexual Assault Epidemic

March 3rd 2015

We've long discussed the atrocities in our nation's prison system, but we also need to talk about just how severe the prison rape problem is and why we're not doing nearly enough to stop it.

The Atlantic took the whole system to task last week for its disregard for the mandates of 2003's Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA for short) with the story of a young man named John who spent his time in prison hoping to stay alive — and having to submit to rape after rape in order to do so. Recently, New York state produced a series of videos advising inmates how to protect themselves from rapists. Education is good, but the biggest problem achieving compliance among all parties is that authorities still aren't really taking this seriously. As it currently stands, states don't have an incentive to comply with the requirements set forth by PREA beyond a promise that they're working on it.

"You see a lot of states just making assurances," Carmen Daugherty, policy director of the Campaign for Youth Justice, explained to The Atlantic, "and it seems like they can do it indefinitely, year after year after year."

And the numbers indicate that nothing's changed. One in 20 prisoners get raped in our current system — that number actually showing a growth in reported sexual assaults by more than a third from 2005 and 2011, according to statistics from the Justice Department (via the Human Rights Watch). Perhaps even more disturbing is the fact that half of the accused sexual abusers were prison or jail employees. And according to Vice,  "less than 1 percent of staff members considered guilty of sexual misconduct or harassment by their employers were ever convicted of a crime—and one in five got to keep their jobs."

So it's no wonder then why the Michigan state attorney general's office — where much of The Atlantic's piece takes place — said they "had a great deal of difficulty in trying to identify anybody who had actually been harmed, anybody who said they were under a current threat."

As of February 2015, the department would only comment to The Atlantic on the lawsuit to say, "We are confident the assertions made in [attorney Deborah LaBelle's] lawsuit are false and we are vigorously defending the department.”

The attorney of whom he speaks, Deborah LaBelle, has shed plenty of light on the sheer ineptitude of PREA's gatekeepers. Like when she spoke to Kimberly Dabner, the PREA coordinator for two facilities, whose job it was to review allegations of sexual misconduct and hand cases off to investigators. When asked "Do you know if PREA has any specific requirements with regard to youthful offenders?" by LaBelle she replied with "I do not know." When asked how PREA defines a youthful offender, Dabner's response was "No."

Truly, as evidenced by how little care and oversight there seems to be when it comes to PREA, the law's message hasn't been internalized by the people who run the prison system, nor those that choose to mock instances of rape when an inmate is involved. As is the case for instances of rape outside the prison system, too much of the onus is placed on the victims of these assaults rather than the perpetrators themselves. When one considers the fact that Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), who sponsored PREA in 2003, told U.S. News and World Report that damages compensation for prison sexual assault lawsuits "could reach billions in some states," well, it's not hard to see why the problem isn't the prisoners who do what they have to do to survive. It's the state and the overall stigma in our society about the rights of prisoners. And until we look at them as human beings first, the road it takes to get there is sure to be a long one.