MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, as woman's history month winds to a close, we speak to National Public Radio CEO Vivian Schiller. She's one of the few women running a major media organization in this country. We talk about how the economic crisis is affecting NPR and journalism today. But first, it's time for us to step Behind Closed Doors. That's a weekly segment where we talk about issues that are usually kept hidden, often because of shame or stigma. And the issue we're going to going to talk about today is the perfect example of something that can only happen behind close doors, locked doors, doors that are meant to protect the public but are too often used to cover up real pain and suffering. We're talking about the subject of prison rape.
Needless to say, this issue might be offensive or difficult or inappropriate for some listeners. If that's the case, we'll give you a minute before we get to the heart of the conversation. And we wanted to have this conversation because this issue has been the subject of jokes since time immemorial, but it is not a laughing matter. Federal officials estimate that the number of prisoners sexually assaulted in the 20 years preceding the passage of the Prison Rape Elimination of 2003, quote, "likely exceeded one million." Judge Reggie B. Walton is the chairman of the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission. It's a group working to create standards and recommendations to stop this problem.
Lovisa Stannow is the executive director of the advocacy group Just Detention International, formerly known as Stop Prisoner Rape. And joining us also is Garrett Cunningham. He says he was raped while incarcerated in a Texas Correctional Facility. We've been made aware of the nature of the offense that caused Garrett's incarceration, but we are going to honor his request not to disclose it because he feels that that might compromise the efforts he is making to move on with his life. But we can tell you that the offense was not sexual or violent in nature. And with that being said, I want to welcome you all to the program. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. GARRETT CUNNINGHAM: Thank You.
Ms. LOVISA STANNOW (Executive Director, Just Detention International): Thank You.
MARTIN: Now Garrett, I want to start by asking you about what happened. I know it's difficult, and we appreciate your being willing to tell us. As briefly as you can, tell us what happened in September of 2000, while you were incarcerated in Texas.
Mr. CUNNINGHAM: I worked for a - worked in a issue room where offenders get their clean clothes, and an officer in there had kept me back one weekend to work by myself. And that was the weekend that I was getting my clothes to get a shower when nobody else was around, and he came up from behind me and shoved me real hard, put handcuffs on me behind my back and had - raped me.
MARTIN: And you had already suspected that there was something inappropriate about this guard's attention to you, if I have that right, that you had told prison officials that he was making suggestive comments, that he was touching you inappropriately. You already disclosed this, correct?
Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Yes, that's correct. Prior to this, almost on a daily basis, I had comments, sexual comments made to me, and I was also sexually harassed during pat searches for contraband items at least twice a day. He groped me during pat searches. You know, he'd reached up and squeeze my groin. And I had complained about this to the assistant warden and the major on the unit, which they had told me that officer was just doing his job. And I had complained about it for months to the unit psychologist, you know, hoping to, you know, get out of that out of that job assignment or get some help or something. And it did absolutely no good.
MARTIN: As I understand it, that prison psychologist told you to stay away from the officer. But how are you supposed to stay away from the officer in prison?
Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Correct. And that was nearly impossible. And this officer was very good friends will all the other officers and mostly ranking officials on that unit. So any complaining I did would get right back to him.
MARTIN: And as I understand it, this same officer was successfully sued, along with the person who failed to act to protect you by another prisoner whom he also assaulted, but this person was able to somehow get some corroborating evidence out of the prison and successfully pursue legal action against this same guard. Is that right?
Mr. CUNNINGHAM: That's correct.
MARTIN: Lovisa, I want to ask you - as we said, this issue is made light of so often. I mean, it's movies, jokes. I mean, the first thing people will say if the issue of prison comes up is, you know, don't drop the soap. But why do you think something so clearly cruel and abusive is tolerated or is made light of?
Ms. STANNOW: I think it's partly that we tend to joke about things make us anxious, and sex certainly does, prisons do. And homophobia, I think, also plays a big part in these jokes, that they tend to be about male inmates raping other male inmates.
MARTIN: How prevalent do you think this problem is even now, despite the fact that there is this ongoing effort to address it, which we're going to talk about in a minute? But…
Ms. STANNOW: It's shockingly prevalent.
MARTIN: What does that mean, though?
Ms. STANNOW: It means…
MARTIN: Do you think every - just about every penal institution has some incidents of rape?
Ms. STANNOW: Oh, absolutely. And I think the main issue that we're looking at when trying to determine the prevalence is that the vast majority of prison rape survivors will not come forward because they are too afraid. They're afraid of the retaliation they may suffer, and they're also often deeply ashamed.
MARTIN: And if I can just ask briefly, you mentioned that we usually think of this as a male-on-male act, but does this occur in women's prisons as well?
Ms. STANNOW: Yes, it does.
MARTIN: With male guards, but what about women prisoners, and women guards, and so forth? Women on women?
Ms. STANNOW: Both. We see inmate-on-inmate violence in women's facilities and in men's prisons, and we also see guards and corrections officials at all levels being involved in both men's and women's prisons and in youth facilities.
MARTIN: Judge, how did you become interested in this issue? You've served at many levels. You've been a superior court judge, federal judge. You've also served in the White House as deputy drug czar. So how did you become interested in this issue?
Judge REGGIE B. WALTON (Chairman, National Prison Rape Elimination Commission): Well, I knew that there were problems of this nature, and while I believe that punishment has to be a part of our process, it has to be humane punishment. And I've always had a concern about how inmates are treated once they're incarcerated.
MARTIN: There are those to that point who would say, why - you know, why are you worried about this? These people are in jail. They did something wrong. They're in prison. That's too bad. What would you say of that?
Judge WALTON: Well, for several reasons, number one, I've never, when I impose a sentence, said that that individual is to be raped when they're incarcerated. So it's not a part of the sentence. Plus, the impact is significant on those who are incarcerated when they get raped, and then they're going to come back. Most of them are going to come back into the community, and they're going to be harmed as a result of what happened and they're going to pose a greater threat for us.
MARTIN: Garrett, can you speak to this? And I want to ask you: I know you tried to call the situation to the attention of authorities. And once you were raped, did you report it?
Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Not immediately. First, I kind of went through emotional roller coaster ride. I was suicidal, which I attempted. I did try to get help after the fact, after I realized, okay, I want to live. I want to get help, and who do I turn to? And that, at that point, had built up to I knew I could not trust the officers there or ranking officials because I'd already confided in them and I was already threatened with my life from this particular officer that I'd better keep my mouth shut or I'd be shipped to a rougher unit where I'd raped all the time or possibly murdered.
MARTIN: Did he ever assault you again?
Mr. CUNNINGHAM: No.
MARTIN: Judge Walton was talking about the effect that this has on a person. Could you tell us a little bit about the effect that it had on you? You said it made you suicidal, but what about after you were able to leave?
Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Oh, after I was able to leave and I realized that there, you know, (unintelligible) and I realized that there are organizations out here that actually do care about, you know, people that are incarcerated. And I realized that, you know, I can get help and there are people that care, that, you know, help made me a stronger and better person and made me want to speak out more.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Judge Reggie B. Walton, Lovisa Stanton(ph), an activist, and Garrett Cunningham, a survivor of prison rape. And I want to remind our listeners again that what we're talking about might be difficult or inappropriate for some listeners. So you want to be advised if you're just tuning in. I wanted to ask just one thing, Lovisa. What are the circumstances under which this kind of thing occurs? Are there some - I know that you're report - you're still working on the findings, and we hope that you'll come back and talk to us when the findings are made public later on this year.
But having determined that there are some factors that lead to some places being more dangerous for prisoners than others? Is it architecture? Is it a mentality? Is it a culture? Is it certain kinds of institutions, judge?
Judge WALTON: I think it's all of those things. I think some of the older tiered facilities are virtually impossible to police, and they need to be replaced. I think you have to ensure that you have people who are working in prisons who appreciate the importance of their role, and that people, even though they're incarcerated, still have human rights and should be treated appropriately.
MARTIN: Do you think, though - and I know I'm asking you to, you know, make a generalization. Do you think that law enforcement officials in general do consider this unacceptable? Because there is a feeling that some consider this part of their vehicle for controlling the institutions.
Judge WALTON: Well, I've had a lot of contact with prison officials during my time running this commission, and my view is that most prison officials are good people who want to do the right thing and who appreciate that inmates are to be treated appropriately when they're incarcerated.
So I don't think you have a vast number of people out there who think that this is appropriate who work in the prison industry. I think most of them appreciate that people are going to come back, and they're going to be harmed to a significant degree if they are raped when they're in prison.
I mean, they appreciate that people are to be treated appropriately when they're incarcerated. That's not to say all, but I think most have that perspective.
MARTIN: Lovisa, what's your take on this?
Ms. STANNOW: One of the main problems we're facing is that prisoner rape is considered somehow innate to life in prison, that it's considered inherent, and that's very far from the truth, that it's really a problem of prison management, a problem of lack of political will and that we know that this kind of violence can be prevented.
Ms. STANNOW: By making sure, for example, that staff are properly trained, that prisoners who are exceptionally vulnerable to becoming rape victims are separated from those who are potentially predatory.
MARTIN: Like who? Like how would you know who's a potential victim?
Ms. STANNOW: Because we know that people who are in prison for the first time who are young, who are convicted of a non-violent crime, who are gay or perceived to be gay, who are transgender women housed in a men's facility, the mentally ill, these are inmate groups that we know are attacked at much, much higher rates than others.
MARTIN: One of the reasons that we were interested in talking about this is there's been a lot of conversation recently about the use of isolation and the effect that that can have on a person's mental health, and what about the use of isolation? Is that typically applied to the victim or to the perpetrator in this case? Does it make it better or worse, in your experience?
Ms. STANNOW: Well, I think isolation for survivors of sexual abuse needs to be non-punitive if it is to occur at all. And typically what happens after an assault is that prison officials often, in a sense of some panic, do pull the victim out of the dormitory or the cell and place him or her in isolation.
And of course, what ought to occur is to make the survivor safe but to put the perpetrator in isolation because isolation tends to, by nature, be punitive, meaning that you lose access to programs and education, and…
MARTIN: Judge, one of the things that intrigues me about Mr. Cunningham's case here is that I think people understand inmate-on-inmate violence, however wrong. People understand it. People are in prison sometimes because they have, maybe a personality disorder, or they don't know how to behave. That's why they're there.
But a guard - presumably, there should have been some screening process to make sure that this person is fit to be in this role. I'm just wondering if the findings are indicating how prevalent that is, the fact that correctional officers are, in fact, the abusers, or are there any mechanisms being discussed to weed out people who would be so inclined?
Judge WALTON: Oh, I think obviously it's important to have a screening process to make sure that you have people who appreciate the importance of their role who are being hired in those positions.
One of the difficulties is that it's not a wholesome environment for people to work in. So, sometimes you don't get good people who want to do it. And then one of the biggest problems is that we pay prison officials who work as guards such low salaries that it's not attractive.
For example, I was shocked when the head of the New York City correctional facilities told us that the starting pay for a New York correctional officer, New York City, is $25,000.
It's a hard job, important, but a very hard job.
MARTIN: Garrett, do you have some thoughts about why this problem persists?
Mr. CUNNINGHAM: I think a lot of it is lack of training. I think if officers were better trained to handle situations like this and be aware that this stuff does occur in there and better pay, so you know, they can go in their job and feel good about what they do, and I think that would make a significant difference.
MARTIN: (unintelligible) Go ahead, Judge.
Judge WALTON: If I could just say leadership is critical. If the head of the correctional unit of any state, local, whatever the system is, lets it be known that zero tolerance is going to be employed when it comes to this, and if people don't comply, there are going to be very harsh punishments as a result of that, that sends a message that I think is very important.
MARTIN: I wanted to ask you, though, in the last couple of minutes that we have left if you think that this problem can be addressed, that we will get to a point where we will not be having these kinds of conversations.
So Garrett, I'll start with you. Do you think that we can get to a point where we won't be having a conversation like this?
Mr. CUNNINGHAM: I don't know if it'll be altogether eliminated, but I think it's possible to bring the statistics drastically down by training and education and, you know, the officers going in there, realize that, you know, people in there, they're just human beings, as well as them, and…
MARTIN: Can I just ask you, before I left you go, how are you doing?
Mr. CUNNINGHAM: I'm doing great. You know, I've been out for approximately five years. During that time, I mean, I've got a family, three beautiful kids. I'm a manager at my job. So I'm doing really good.
MARTIN: Lovisa, what about you? Do you think that there will be a point at which your organization won't need to exist? Is that possible?
Ms. STANNOW: I certainly hope so, and I think we will see a lowering of the rates of prisoner rape in the coming years, partly thanks to these national standards that will be released in a couple of months that Judge Walton has led the development of those standards.
And I think we can reach a point, certainly, where we don't see the kind of systemic, widespread abuse that we see now and where there is an understanding at all levels within corrections and on the outside, among the general public, that when the government removes someone's freedom, it takes on an absolute responsibility to keep that person safe and that whatever crime someone might have committed, rape is not part of the penalty.
And most Americans, I'm convinced, agree with that, that that's a good thing. We don't sentence people to rape, as Judge Walton said earlier.
MARTIN: Judge, you have the final word. Do you think that we'll be able to eliminate this problem with focused attention?
Judge WALTON: Realistically, I don't think we'll eliminate it, but I think we can have a significant impact on the number of incidents that occur.
One of the impediments, however, is that there has to be political will to address the problem, and one of the prescriptions that Congress imposed when they created this commission was that we could not make recommendations that would have a significant fiscal implication. And the reality is that if we're going to really address the problem, there is going to have to be some additional funding put into the system to make sure that we have facilities that are, in fact, safe.
MARTIN: Judge Reggie B. Walton is chairman of the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission. He joined us from our Washington, D.C., studios along with Lovisa Stannow. She is the executive director of the advocacy group Just Detention International.
We were also joined by Garrett Cunningham from his home in Texas. He is the founder of Pen Friends and Services, a list of legal resources, after-care programs and pen-pal contacts. We'll have links to all of the programs and the commission that we talked about at our Web site, npr.org/tellmemore.
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