Texas prisons among the worst in the country at protecting LGBT prisoners, studies show
Sexual Assault Awareness Month [April] is a time to reflect on the terrible harm sexual violence causes, no matter where it occurs. Unfortunately, survivors of rape in detention are often forgotten or ignored.
For countless lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender inmates, sexual abuse is a daily reality.
A recent government study of abuse in juvenile facilities found that almost one in eight youth detainees had been sexually victimized in the preceding 12 months; kids who reported a "non-heterosexual" identity had been assaulted at twice that rate.
Similar federal surveys of adult prisoners have found that gay and transgender inmates are, by far, the most likely to be raped.
Sexual abuse behind bars is a nationwide problem, but Texas facilities are especially plagued by this type of violence. A 2007 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics identified the 10 prisons nationwide with the highest prevalence of sexual assault; five of them were in Texas.
Similarly, a Bureau of Justice Statistics study released in January of this year found that two Texas youth facilities were among the worst in the nation; more than one in three youth at these detention centers reported sexual abuse at their current facilities in the previous year.
Every day, Just Detention International receives letters from prisoner rape survivors. One in four letters comes from Texas, and many of those from LGBT detainees.
Their accounts are horrific, and many speak about the additional abuse they suffered when reporting an assault or requesting medical and mental health treatment. Rather than receiving protection and assistance, many LGBT prisoner rape survivors encounter disbelief, apathy or ridicule from corrections officials.
Even worse, gay and transgender rape victims are often blamed for the abuse — for "asking for it" simply by being gay or transgender. In some cases, LGBT rape survivors have themselves been punished, as if they willingly engaged in prohibited sexual activity.
Rape is a crime across the U.S., and the Constitution bars corrections agencies from inflicting cruel and unusual punishment. Despite such legal protections, it is exceptionally difficult for prisoners to hold abusive corrections officials accountable.
Prisoner rape thrives in facilities where impunity reigns. Institutional homophobia compounds the problem.
But now we have a tool available that could dramatically improve safety behind bars. 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 ensure the safety of LGBT inmates.
For example, the standards require that housing decisions include a consideration of whether an inmate belongs to a known vulnerable population (such as being gay or transgender); at-risk individuals and survivors of sexual assault must be kept separate from likely, or known, predators.
The standards also spell out requirements for staff training, inmate education and sexual assault investigations. They require 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 now reviewing the standards, before issuing a final rule making them binding on detention facilities nationwide. But some corrections leaders are pressuring Holder to weaken the standards; they claim that these measures will cost too much to implement — 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.
Holder is currently soliciting public comments on the proposed standards. This is an important opportunity for the LGBT community in Texas and across the country to urge Holder to conduct his review promptly and to enact a strong set of measures aimed at ending sexual abuse in detention.
The bipartisan government commission that developed the standards already spent five years studying the problem. There is no need for the attorney general to duplicate that effort.
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 the executive director of Just Detention International, an international human rights organization that seeks to end sexual abuse in all forms of detention.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 23, 2010.