Commission: 'Zero Tolerance' On Prison Rape

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NPR's Laura Sullivan discusses the new federal "zero-tolerance" standards for prison rape that were released this past week. Statistics show that 4.5 percent of inmates in the nation's prisons reported being raped and slightly more than half of the time the assailants are corrections officers, Sullivan says. Another report shows that some of the officers that perpetrate these crimes are women corrections' officers, she adds.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that rape in prison is cruel and unusual punishment. But statistics show it's a common occurrence behind bars. And that could soon change. A national commission on inmate assault released its findings this past week and created a set of standards jails and prisons may be forced to follow.

NPR correspondent Laura Sullivan has the police and prisons beat, and she's in the studio to discuss the issue. Hi, Laura.

LAURA SULLIVAN: Hi.

HANSEN: This was a bipartisan commission that examined the problem of prison rape. They examined it for five years.

SULLIVAN: Yes.

HANSEN: What did they find?

SULLIVAN: Well, the commission took a lot longer than they expected, and they spent a lot more money than they had planned. But what they found really confirmed what advocates had been saying for years - that rape in prison is a pretty common occurrence. 4.5 percent of inmates in the nation's jails and prisons reported being assaulted in the past year. So that's about 60,000 inmates a year. And what this report says is that there's just really very little oversight, very little punishment and not very much help for these victims.

HANSEN: Now, who are the assailants in these cases and who are the victims?

SULLIVAN: According to the report, just slightly more than half of the time, the assailants are correctional officers. At some of the hearings, several inmates testified to just some extraordinary long-term abuse at the hands of officers. And this, of course, varies by facilities. Some facilities had no incidents at all, but others were having some serious trouble.

As for the victims, the report found it that it really does cut across all racial lines and gender lines. But some are more vulnerable than others - that would be inmates who are small in stature, inmates who are new to prison, juveniles especially were at the most risk. The commissioners found that one in five juveniles will be assaulted while behind bars.

HANSEN: Did it surprise you that the assailants, in many cases, are correctional officers? That seemed surprising.

SULLIVAN: I think that it's surprising to a lot of people who are not familiar with the prison culture and the prison environment. For people and advocates that have been dealing with this issue for a while, this is something that they've been talking about, that this has been a hidden problem for the very reason that the assailants are more than half the time correctional officers.

HANSEN: And just an aside to that, there's another report that also shows that some of the officers that are perpetrating these crimes are women officers who take advantage of their position over male inmates. How did they arrive at that number, that percentage?

SULLIVAN: The commission pulled these numbers two ways. One, they used the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which is a very reputable government organization that does these numbers. And they did a sampling survey of inmates self-reporting what has happened to them. They also combined that with the numbers from prisons that had actually taken case incident reports of inmates who had been taken to a medical center, who had - there had actually been a case file opened in those instances. So, at the end of the day they feel like when it was all sifted out, that this number is rather accurate.

HANSEN: Do you think there are cases that still go unreported?

SULLIVAN: Absolutely. And the commissioners believe very strongly, and that's one of the things that they said in this, that there is no way to know the full extent of this problem, just by the very nature that prisons are so insular, they're so secretive, it's very hard to have any public oversight in them. And it's just such a difficult environment for inmates to report these crimes.

HANSEN: What does the commission recommend?

SULLIVAN: So the commission is calling for written zero tolerance policies in every facility in the country. They want to see a standardized system for inmates to be able to report a rape. They want to see treatment in jails and prisons for when it does happen. They want to see outside oversight, better leadership.

If I can just boil it down, it's - they are pushing for ways for inmates to have an opportunity to be believed, a standardized way for them to show that this has happened to them. And they want to see a way for assailants to be punished. The commission found instances where an inmate would show proof of being raped by an officer, and then that officer would be suspended with pay for a week. I mean, so this is the sort of thing that we're talking about.

HANSEN: But, really, I mean, what are the chances that these standards will be implemented and how will they be enforced?

SULLIVAN: So, it's going to come down to Attorney General Eric Holder. It's his call right now. He has a year to review these recommendations and decide whether to put them in place. And if he decides that these are a good idea, they will become requirements for any facility that accepts federal funding, and that's the key. Because if a jail or prison doesn't want to adopt these standards, they will risk losing some of their federal funding. And there are not very many facilities in this budget climate that want to risk losing any funding at this point.

But there's going to be a lot of pushback from the prisons, or at least some, because some of these standards are expensive. The commission is calling for treatment for abused inmates. And that means not only the obvious medical treatment, but mental health treatment and that is very pricey and not many prisons are going to want to pay for that.

HANSEN: Laura Sullivan is NPR's police and prison correspondent. Thank you very much.

SULLIVAN: Thank you.

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