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News / Northwest

Prison-rape law’s fate uncertain

Inmate advocates fear damage to it if proposal passes

The Columbian
Published: January 4, 2015, 4:00pm
3 Photos
Felice Davis, associate superintendent of programs, explains that the height of restroom stall doors allows some privacy but helps to dissuade illicit activity at the Washington Corrections Center For Women in Gig Harbor.
Felice Davis, associate superintendent of programs, explains that the height of restroom stall doors allows some privacy but helps to dissuade illicit activity at the Washington Corrections Center For Women in Gig Harbor. Photo Gallery

A look at problem of rape in U.S. prisons

Inmate advocates had lobbied for years for policymakers and lawmakers to address the problem of prison rape. Federal statistics show about 216,000 adult and juvenile inmates are sexually assaulted each year, compared to 238,000 in the overall U.S.

More than half of all sexual assaults behind bars are committed by prison staffers, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, and more than half of those employee-on-inmate assaults are committed by women.

Among the most vulnerable populations are the mentally ill, juveniles and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender inmates.

By the mid-1990s, more than half of the states passed laws defining staff-on-inmate sexual misconduct as a criminal offense.

A look at problem of rape in U.S. prisons

Inmate advocates had lobbied for years for policymakers and lawmakers to address the problem of prison rape. Federal statistics show about 216,000 adult and juvenile inmates are sexually assaulted each year, compared to 238,000 in the overall U.S.

More than half of all sexual assaults behind bars are committed by prison staffers, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, and more than half of those employee-on-inmate assaults are committed by women.

Among the most vulnerable populations are the mentally ill, juveniles and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender inmates.

By the mid-1990s, more than half of the states passed laws defining staff-on-inmate sexual misconduct as a criminal offense.

And in 1994, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal prison officials in Terre Haute, Indiana, failed to take reasonable measures to protect a transgender woman who was repeatedly raped after she was sent to live with the general male population.

Prison rape survivors, inmate advocacy groups and evangelical organizations lobbied Congress to pass a law that aimed to end sexual assault behind bars. In 2003, Congress unanimously passed it.

If states opt out of the law or don't comply, they stand to lose 5 percent of federal funds they get for prison operations.

In all, states have spent more than $110 million in state and federal funds to implement the law. By last fall, every state was supposed to certify that it had instituted dozens of the standards.

So far, New Jersey and New Hampshire say they are compliant with the law's requirements, and 43 states and the District of Columbia are working toward that goal. All states have made some improvements to follow the law.

Pennsylvania developed a web-based incident reporting program, and is working to improve prosecution strategies to ensure that rapists are brought to justice. Colorado and Oregon, for example, are using software to help track sexual assault reports.

Texas, Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Nebraska, Utah and Idaho have opted out, arguing that it's too costly to implement requirements that they say don't give them the flexibility to administer their facilities the way they see fit.

Texas, for example, says a requirement to prevent guards from seeing inmates of the opposite sex naked in the showers or during strip searches wouldn't work because 40 percent of the correctional officer workforce is female.

Federal surveys show the nation's rate of sexual victimization behind bars has remained steady for at least 7 years, with nearly 1 in 10 adult inmates reporting attacks. The rate is the same for juveniles, although that has improved slightly since 2008.

And in 1994, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal prison officials in Terre Haute, Indiana, failed to take reasonable measures to protect a transgender woman who was repeatedly raped after she was sent to live with the general male population.

Prison rape survivors, inmate advocacy groups and evangelical organizations lobbied Congress to pass a law that aimed to end sexual assault behind bars. In 2003, Congress unanimously passed it.

If states opt out of the law or don’t comply, they stand to lose 5 percent of federal funds they get for prison operations.

In all, states have spent more than $110 million in state and federal funds to implement the law. By last fall, every state was supposed to certify that it had instituted dozens of the standards.

So far, New Jersey and New Hampshire say they are compliant with the law’s requirements, and 43 states and the District of Columbia are working toward that goal. All states have made some improvements to follow the law.

Pennsylvania developed a web-based incident reporting program, and is working to improve prosecution strategies to ensure that rapists are brought to justice. Colorado and Oregon, for example, are using software to help track sexual assault reports.

Texas, Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Nebraska, Utah and Idaho have opted out, arguing that it’s too costly to implement requirements that they say don’t give them the flexibility to administer their facilities the way they see fit.

Texas, for example, says a requirement to prevent guards from seeing inmates of the opposite sex naked in the showers or during strip searches wouldn’t work because 40 percent of the correctional officer workforce is female.

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Federal surveys show the nation’s rate of sexual victimization behind bars has remained steady for at least 7 years, with nearly 1 in 10 adult inmates reporting attacks. The rate is the same for juveniles, although that has improved slightly since 2008.

When Jan Lastocy was repeatedly raped by a Michigan state prison guard, she felt she’d become invisible. There was no rape crisis center hotline. She’d been warned that inmates were never believed over guards.

She was among roughly 216,000 prison rape victims not included in America’s national rape statistics.

So when Congress passed a law in 2003 aimed at ending sexual assault in U.S. prisons, jails and juvenile detention centers, survivors like Lastocy hoped that it would help solve the long-ignored problem.

Lastocy and a coalition of inmate advocacy groups and evangelical groups had worked for years to convince policymakers and corrections officials that rape behind bars shouldn’t be accepted, even if the public had little sympathy for its victims.

“I felt vindicated because I had been fighting so hard, and for so long, to bring attention to this issue and get justice for myself and for all survivors,” said Lastocy, who was repeatedly raped by a guard while serving time for embezzlement.

Now, some advocates worry that a proposal to reduce the law’s financial penalties will severely damage it. The measure failed this fall, but its sponsor, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, vows to re-introduce it in the new GOP-controlled Congress.

Cornyn said the funds include grants for worthy programs, such as ones that support rape and domestic violence victims. He said the law should be more narrowly tailored to affect money for prison construction, operations and administration.

The proposal has put some prison rape survivors on the opposite side of those who survived sexual assault on the outside.

Nearly two dozen organizations, including prison industry groups and the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, have lauded his efforts. They say they trust prison officials to work vigorously at reducing rapes even without financial penalties.

“There’s no desire to do anything less than help victims,” said Rebecca O’Connor, RAINN’s vice president of public policy, adding that her organization just wants to make sure the law is applied in a way that doesn’t harm existing programs.

Advocates say the measure is the latest sign that the law’s implementation is too slow. Federal statistics show about 216,000 adult and juvenile inmates are sexually assaulted each year, compared to 238,000 people living outside of correction facilities in the U.S.

Allen Beck, a statistician with the U.S. Department of Justice who researches the incidence of prison rape, said the biggest indicator of prisoner sexual assault is the culture of the facility, not the number of inmates or security cameras.

“Really it’s about how the facilities are managed, in terms of institutional culture,” Beck said.

When Lastocy stepped into Camp Branch, a minimum security women’s prison in Michigan, in 1998, she was facing as much as 10 years in prison for attempting to embezzle several thousand dollars from her employer, ABO Security.

As she adjusted to the discovery after her arrest that she had bipolar disorder, rape quickly became a fact of life.

Like many prison rape survivors, she feared that the guard who raped her could extend her prison stay by writing her false tickets for breaking prison rules if she reported him. He was later convicted of sexually assaulting several inmates, including Lastocy.

When she learned that she may have been his first victim, she felt guilt for not speaking up, said Lastocy, who now is an advocate for prison rape survivors.

The passage of the law, however, gave her hope that there would be fewer victims. But like other advocates, she’s been frustrated by the pace of change at correctional institutions throughout the country.

The law’s backers say Cornyn’s proposal would essentially gut the penalty because little, if any, federal grant money actually goes toward prison administration, operations and constructions. Those are funded by state and local governments.

To take the provision out “would totally obliterate the incentive states have to comply with” the law, said U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton, the chairman of the former National Prison Rape Elimination Commission.

The commission developed the law’s requirements, which range from increased training of staff about sex abuse policies to screening new inmates to determine if they’re likely to commit sexual assault or to be assaulted.

In Texas, which has six facilities among those nationally with the highest prevalence rate of sexual assaults, officials used nearly $2.6 million in federal money to install extra cameras in some facilities and develop a sexual assault awareness curriculum.

The state has since opted out, and faces an $800,000 loss in federal funding.

Jason Clark, a corrections spokesman, said a requirement to prevent guards from seeing inmates of the opposite sex naked in the showers or during strip searches wouldn’t work because 40 percent of the correctional officer workforce is female.

Many states have trained staffers and educated inmates about how to spot and report sexual assault.

Addressing sexual assault and caring for victims “decreases the likelihood of an offender becoming a victim again and committing a violent act once he or she returns to the community,” said Norah West, Washington state’s corrections spokeswoman.

Eight state correctional facilities comply with the federal law, West said. Nine more are set to be audited in 2015.

For Lastocy, the trauma didn’t end when she left prison.

She struggled with terror as she watched her teenage daughter begin to navigate the dating. She worked to repair her wounded marriage, trying to explain to her husband why she didn’t tell him, or anyone, about the rapes.

She still has nightmares, 15 years after her ordeal.

“I know the judge did not sentence me to be raped,” said Lastocy. “As much as I despise him, I don’t even wish my rapist would be raped while he is in prison, because nobody deserves it.”

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