States could lose money over prison rapes

Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) — New measures aimed at reducing prison rapes are in the works — and states that fail to take steps to protect their inmates could see their federal money cut.

The new standards were proposed Tuesday by the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, a bipartisan panel that spent five years studying the issue. It’s estimated that about 60,000 inmates are sexually abused each year.

With more than 7.3 million people behind bars or on parole and probation in the U.S., the report said jails and prisons should take a series of steps to eliminate sexual abuse of inmates. Those steps include the adoption of zero tolerance policies, better staff training and improved screening to identify prisoners vulnerable to abuse.

“Individuals who are incarcerated have basic human rights,” said U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton, chairman of the commission. “Just because they’ve committed a crime and they’re incarcerated does not mean that their human dignity can be abused.”

The proposed standards are being sent to Attorney General Eric Holder, who has a year to write national standards. States will be notified of the finalized standards and then must adopt them or risk losing 5 percent of any federal prison grant money.

Some of the report’s key findings:
— Inmates who are short, young, gay, or female were more likely to be victimized than other inmates.
— Even when inmates are willing to report abuse, their accounts are not always taken seriously and reported to appropriate officials.

In a 2007 study, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that more than 60,000 inmates are sexually abused every year. The study found that 4.5 percent of those surveyed reported being sexually abused in the previous 12 months.

That study also said more prisoners reported abuse by staff than by other prisoners: 2.9 percent to about 2 percent, respectively.

The commission’s report recommended that prison authorities adopt more internal monitoring, such as video cameras, as well as external oversight by review boards.

Justice Department spokesman Matt Miller said the report “is an important next step in our efforts to prevent, detect, and respond to sexual abuse in correction and detention facilities in the United States.”

James Gondles Jr., executive director of the American Correctional Association, said he’s optimistic that “we can get something that’s workable.” But Gondles said he’s concerned that county jails, which have fewer resources than prisons, may not have the money to implement some proposals, such as adding staff for mental health treatment of abuse victims.

At the commission’s news conference Tuesday, Hope Hernandez told a crowded room of her ordeal in a Washington D.C. jail in the late 90s when the then-23-year old was awaiting trial on drug charges.

After begging for a shower for two weeks, Hernandez said a corrections officer showed up one night with a towel and shampoo to take her for a shower. She said he led her to the shower, where he raped her.

“Rape must never be part of the penalty, ” said Hernandez, a mother of two who later earned a master’s degree in social work.

His punishment, she said, was a seven-day suspension with pay before being returned to duty.

Associated Press writer Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.

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