RCASA’s Promising Programs: Just Detention International

In Sexual Assault Awareness on November 17, 2010 at 8:00 am

All of JDI’s work takes place within the framework of international human rights laws. The sexual assault of detainees, whether committed by corrections staff or by inmates, is a crime and is recognized internationally as a form of torture.

Cases of sexual abuse in detention are not rare, isolated incidents, but the result of a systemic failure to protect the safety of inmates. Victims of prisoner rape are left beaten and bloodied, contract HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, and suffer severe psychological harm. Once released – and the vast majority of prisoners do eventually get out – they return to their communities with all of their physical and emotional scars.

JDI is concerned about the safety and well-being of all detainees, including those held in adult prisons and jails, juvenile facilities, immigration detention centers, and police lock-ups, whether run by government agencies or by private corporations on behalf of the government.

JDI has three core goals for its work: to ensure government accountability for prisoner rape; to transform ill-informed public attitudes about sexual violence in detention; and to promote access to resources for those who have survived this form of abuse.

The Problem of Sexual Abuse in Detention

Sexual assault behind bars is a widespread human rights crisis in prisons and jails across the U.S. According to the best available research, 20 percent of inmates in men’s prisons are sexually abused at some point during their incarceration. The rate for women’s facilities varies dramatically from one prison to another, with one in four inmates being victimized at the worst institutions.

In a 2008-2009 survey of prison and jail inmates across the country, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) estimated that 88,500 adult inmates had been sexually abused at their current facility in the previous year alone. In a separate survey, the BJS found that 12.1 percent — almost one in eight — of youth in juvenile detention reported being assaulted at their current facility in the prior year alone.

Unfortunately, the data provided by the BJS still represent only a fraction of the true number of detainees who are victimized, especially of those held in county jails. The number of admissions to local jails over the course of a year is approximately 17 times higher than the nation’s jail population on any given day, so the BJS surveyors were able to cover only a very small proportion of jail detainees over an entire year.

These statistics expose a serious, systemic failure to protect the basic human rights of inmates. Survivors can be abused relentlessly, sometimes for long periods of time, and marked as fair game for attacks by other detainees. In some cases, prisoners are treated like the perpetrators’ property and sold within the facility. In prisons and jails throughout the country, simple preventive measures are rarely taken, and reports of rape are often ignored. In the worst facilities, corrections officials facilitate or participate in sexual violence, respond to inmates’ cries for help with laughter or derision, and grant perpetrators impunity.

While anyone can become the victim of sexual violence, the most marginalized members of society at large also tend to be the most vulnerable behind bars. In particular, inmates who are gay, transgender, young, mentally ill, or incarcerated for the first time and for non-violent offenses are at highest risk.

Survivors of sexual abuse behind bars experience the same emotional pain as other rape victims. The absence of confidential counseling places prisoner rape survivors at high risk of developing serious long-term problems, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and alcohol and other drug addictions. Moreover, the high rates of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases in detention place incarcerated survivors at great risk for infection. Once released – and 95 percent of inmates do return home – survivors bring their emotional trauma and medical conditions back to their communities.

Whether committed by staff or by fellow inmates, sexual assault behind bars is a form of torture that violates international human rights law, the U.S. Constitution, and state criminal law. The U.S. has ratified two international treaties – the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or De¬grading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) – which require the U.S. to protect prisoners from sexual violence.

In Farmer v. Brennan and the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, the U.S. government has also recognized that prisoner rape can amount to cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Moreover, every state has rape and sexual custodial misconduct laws that criminalize this form of abuse, regard¬less of the victim’s custody status, sexual orientation or gender identity.

When the government takes away someone’s freedom, it has a responsibility to protect that person’s safety. All inmates have the right be treated with dignity, and no matter what crime someone has committed, sexual violence must never be part of the penalty.

Taken with permission from JDI.com


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