May 6, 2010 at 9:21 am EDT | by Lovisa Stannow
Gov’t can help stop prisoner rape

It’s rare for conservatives and liberals to come together in support of LGBT rights. However, the effort to end prisoner rape is such a case. Sexual violence plagues our nation’s detention facilities, and federal surveys of inmates have found that gay and transgender detainees are by far the most likely to be abused. In Congress and among leading pundits, the left and right agree that the U.S. needs strong national standards to stop this devastating form of abuse.

Government studies reveal that at least 100,000 men, women and children are assaulted behind bars each year. Anyone can become a victim, but perpetrators tend to target LGBT prisoners and those who are small, young, non-violent, and incarcerated for the first time.

Many survivors of sexual violence suffer additional abuse when reporting an assault or requesting medical and mental health treatment. Rather than receiving protection and assistance, prisoner rape survivors often face disbelief, apathy or ridicule from corrections officials. Even worse, officials commonly blame LGBT rape victims, claiming that they invited the violence simply by being gay or transgender.

Rape is a crime across the U.S., and the Constitution bars corrections agencies from inflicting cruel and unusual punishment on detainees. Despite such legal protections, it is exceptionally difficult for prisoners to hold abusive corrections officials accountable – and officials know it. Prisoner rape thrives in facilities where predatory staff and inmates know they can get away with abuse. Deeply rooted institutional homophobia compounds the problem.

But sexual abuse in detention is preventable. And the Obama administration can drastically improve safety behind bars, if it has the political will to do so. Last June, a bipartisan government commission issued recommended national standards aimed at preventing and addressing sexual abuse in detention. Mandated by the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, these standards draw on best practices already in use around the country, and include specific provisions to protect LGBT inmates.

For example, the standards require that housing decisions include a consideration of whether an inmate belongs to a known vulnerable population; at-risk individuals and survivors of sexual assault must not be housed together with likely or known predators. The standards also spell out requirements for staff training, inmate education, and sexual assault investigations. They call on facilities to provide prisoner rape survivors with access to medical and mental health services even if inmates are too afraid to testify against their attackers.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is currently reviewing the standards, before issuing a final rule making them binding on detention facilities nationwide. Sadly, some corrections leaders are pressuring Holder to weaken the standards. They claim that it will cost too much to implement these measures – that it is too expensive to stop prisoner rape.

The reality is that the financial benefits of preventing sexual assault in detention – and surely they are less important than the moral considerations – are enormous. The standards would help eliminate sexual abuse that, in the past few years alone, has resulted in litigation costing corrections systems many millions of dollars in damages.

When survivors of prisoner rape require medical care, as they often do, corrections agencies bear most of the costs. And people traumatized by sexual assault behind bars often suffer serious long-term problems – including HIV infection, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and alcohol and other drug addictions. When survivors are released, local communities foot the bill for treating these conditions.

Until May 10, Holder is soliciting public comments on the proposed standards. LGBT organizations and individuals should take this opportunity to urge Holder to conduct his review promptly and enact a strong set of measures aimed at ending sexual abuse in detention. By far the fastest and easiest way to submit a public comment in favor of the standards is to sign on to Just Detention International’s petition, posted at

When the government takes away someone’s liberty, it is responsible for protecting that person’s safety. Prisoner rape is a perversion of justice. The national standards promise to bring us closer than ever before to ending sexual violence behind bars.

Lovisa Stannow is executive director of Just Detention International, an international human rights organization that seeks to end sexual abuse in all forms of detention.

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