Sexual Violence On the Rise in US Prisons

Liliana Segura: Last year there was a 21 percent jump in sexual violence in US prisons and in more than half the cases, the perpetrators were guards.
More bad news out of the Justice Department. While the Bush administration reveled in its successful conviction of "dirty bomber"/torture victim Jose Padilla yesterday, the DOJ quietly released a report on sexual violence in American prisons. The findings in a nutshell: It's on the rise

According to the report, 6,528 cases of sexual violence were reported in 2006 (and those are just the reported cases), which is a 21 percent jump from 2004, the year such data started being officially collected. In more than half the cases, prison guards were the perpetrators.

It's hard to get people riled up about prison rape. Rampant though it may be, it's widely treated as little more than a cultural punchline; the subtext being that most prisoners probably deserve it. But with the US prison population the largest in the world, a spike in sexual violence behind prison walls means the cesspit that passes for our criminal justice system is getting even worse. And while feeble efforts have been made in recent years to legislate solutions, the root problem lies with outdated policies that have led to the prison boom--and the politics that keep them in place.

This past spring, for example, an LA-based human rights group called Stop Prisoner Rape (SPR) released a study linking the ineffectual (yet enduring) farce known as the War on Drugs with the rise in sexual violence in prisons. "The War on Drugs has had a profound impact," SPR's directors wrote earlier this year. "just not the impact that was intended."
"Of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in the U.S. today, more than 500,000 are imprisoned on drug charges, with hundreds of thousands more convicted of drug-motivated crimes.
...Studies show that as many as 20 percent of male prisoners have been pressured or coerced into sex, and 10 percent have been raped. While any detainee can become the victim of prisoner rape, people serving drug sentences, many of whom are young, unschooled in the ways of prison life, and non-violent, are among those at greatest risk.
With little or no institutional protection, prisoner rape survivors are left with physical injuries, are impregnated against their will, contract HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, and suffer severe psychological harm."
Liliana Segura is a writer and activist living in New York
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