TONY COX, host:
From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Tony Cox, in for Farai Chideya.
Earlier this week, we looked at a bipartisan plan to revamp tough laws for crack cocaine offenses and for sentencing. But advocates say what's missing in the debate is what the authors call a devastating link between current U.S. drug policies and violent sexual assault, including rape.
A new report out this Thursday addresses the issue. It's titled "Stories from Inside," and includes 24 firsthand accounts of prison rape survivors - many victims who are serving time for low-level, nonviolent drug crimes.
Earlier, I spoke to Katherine-Hall Martinez, co-executive director of the group Stop Prisoner Rape, which released the study, along with Dr. Terry Kupers, a prison mental health expert and a social worker in the California prison system.
I asked Dr. Kupers what factors contribute to the high incidence of sexual assault in prison?
Dr. TERRY KUPERS (Prison Mental Health Expert, California): One of them is the characteristics of the person who is subjected to this kind of violence. People who are sort of not accustomed to the criminal life, the tough style in the men's prisons, the street savvy - that kind of thing - are more vulnerable when it comes to prison rape.
And people who have substance abuse problems tend to overlap a great deal with that population. That is, people come in who are not exactly wise to street dynamics and such and haven't done previous time in prison, so they come in as very vulnerable and very subject to attack.
COX: What commonalities did you find among these victims of sexual abuse in prison beyond the fact that they were all convicted of nonviolent drug crimes?
Ms. KATHERINE HALL-MARTINEZ (Co-Executive Director, Stop Prison Rape): Well, we found that many of them were young, and that many of them were - as Terry was mentioning - unschooled in the ways of prison life. This was oftentimes their first offense, and they came in believing that they would be able to sort of do their time and go back to life outside prison after finishing their sentence. And they found that, in fact, they were subjected to a horrible sexual violence inside the place where they were supposed to be able to, you know, be deprived of their liberty, but not otherwise suffer additional, you know, devastating physical and emotional sexual consequences. And so we really wanted to show that linkage.
COX: Terry, you are a psychiatrist, as I understand it. And I have visited a number of prisons around the country, private as well as public, maximum security, minimum security, male, female, juvenile. And the one thing that they all seem to have in common, particularly the adult facilities - and this is what I'd like you to speak to - is that as soon as you walk inside and they close that gate or that door behind you, there is an immediate feeling of sexual tension, isn't there?
Dr. KUPERS: That's absolutely correct. And what it really is about is domination. There's two ways that the war on drugs and substance abuse in general have contributed to the problem. One is, of course, that the people who go to prison and jail for nonviolent drug-related crimes are more vulnerable.
Another is that the war on drugs has massively expanded the prison population, so we have crowding. A crowded situation is much more difficult to manage, so what happens is it's basically a free-for-all in there. And there aren't enough rehabilitation programs. There aren't enough meaningful activities.
The groups that gather are too big. A hundred or 200 prisoners are shoved into a dormitory on bunks which is made out of the prison gymnasium is converted to a dormitory. These situations are unmanageable, and therefore we know from a lot of research they become more violent, and sexual violence is a big part of it.
COX: You have talked about who the victimized are. But who are the people who are victimizing them? Are we talking about other inmates primarily? Or are we talking about supervisory staff, people who are in some position of authority? Who's conducting all of this?
Dr. KUPERS: Well, typically, in men's prisons, it tends to be one prisoner sexually victimizing another - although, that's not entirely the case. And I've seen quite a number of situations where staff victimize prisoners. In women's prisons, it's - a large majority of cases are custodial misconduct. That is, typically, male staffs sexually abuse women prisoners who they're supposed to be taking care of.
COX: Is it worse in, say, a maximum-security facility than in a minimum one? Or is it worse in a federal or in a state facility versus a private facility?
Dr. KUPERS: There are really no clear trends there. The maximum-security facilities tend to be more tightly disciplined. That is, the groups that meet are smaller. The staff supervision is greater. People spend more time in their cells.
So often, it's in the medium-security facilities where sexual assault occurs. But what we found is that it occurs everywhere.
COX: Katherine, you head up a group called Stop Prisoner Rape. And a lot of people might say that those who are incarcerated deserved what they get, whatever that might be - rape included, supposedly.
How do you respond as advocates for those who are abused in prison because they are there for breaking the law?
Ms. MARTINEZ: I think people really need to step back and think about that kind of an attitude. People who are in prisons today oftentimes are the people that we know and we come into contact in our own daily life - people's relatives. And 95 percent of those who are incarcerated leave the prison system and go back to society.
If those people suffer severe physical and emotional consequences having been sexually abused in prison, the impacts of that come back to impact communities and families of those individuals.
COX: In what way?
Ms. MARTINEZ: Well, I think that we all understand from what we've learned about sexual violence in the community as that issue has come more out into the open over the past 20 or 30 years, that it has devastating impacts on people who are raped, say, in the outside world.
The same exact thing happens to those who are raped in a prison setting, and who, in fact, may suffer some additional hardship because of their inability to access help to the other incarcerated. They have many times quite justified fears about what could happen to them if they report what's gone on and if they seek help.
So they tend to live with these consequences sort of unarticulated, and it's only when they get out that they sometimes suffer even greater trauma. This is a human rights issue. It's appalling that in the 21st century in U.S. prisons and jails, our corrections facilities are unable to ensure people's security. Those who are incarcerated - they should not be subjected to sexual abuse.
COX: What would you have those who are running these facilities do to try to protect the people who are being abused in this way?
Dr. KUPERS: In the bigger picture, there needs to be a zero tolerance, both on the part of society and the part of correctional management. Poorly run institutions is where sexual assault happens. It's where violence happens. Institutions where there's no meaningful activities. So, for instance, a crowded institution where there is a lot of idleness and not enough jobs, not enough rehabilitation, not enough education.
All these things are in a very bad shape today because of exactly the attitude that you mentioned, which is sort of this hard on crime and the person did the crime, lock them up and throw away the key. A lot of the problem is the public ignoring what happens to people after they're convicted and sent to prison.
The Stop Prisoner Rape and a number of organizations pushed for a prison rape elimination act, a federal piece of legislation which requires the states and federal governments to look into the crimes of sexual assault and do what they can to prevent it and to respond to it with mental health services for those who survived with investigations and punishments for those who perpetrate it.
People have to remember that individuals who go to prison are still human beings and have certain rights. And as a society, we are going to have a very detrimental situation if we start saying we don't care what happens to those individuals.
COX: Let me thank both of you, Katherine and Terry, a very informative conversation. I appreciate it.
Dr. COOPER: Thank you.
Ms. HALL-MARTINEZ: Thank you so much.
COX: That again was Katherine Hall-Martinez, co-executive director of the group Stop Prison Rape, and Dr. Terry Cooper is a prison mental health expert who works in the California prison system.