Congress plans to take a closer look at the issue next week because prison rape has been associated with the spread of potentially fatal diseases such as AIDS and tuberculosis.
"The AIDS incidence within prisons is alarmingly high," Pat Nolan, president of the non-profit group the Justice Fellowship of Reston, Va., which works to reform the criminal justice system, told United Press International. He noted 95 percent of people in prison will eventually be released back into society, so if they contract AIDS or other diseases while incarcerated they will be a tremendous burden to society due to healthcare costs and the threat they pose for spreading disease.
Lara Stemple, executive director of the non-profit human rights group Stop Prisoner Rape, told UPI, "Rape and HIV in prison is eight to 10 times as high as in the general population." Her group views AIDS as an unadjudicated death sentence because people who receive only a short sentence for their crime but contract AIDS while in prison have essentially had their sentence extended to death.
She said the people most likely to be raped in prisons are nonviolent and first-time offenders and these are the most likely to be released back into the general population, which ultimately poses a disease risk to society. In addition to AIDS, herpes and other sexually transmitted diseases have been spread in prisons and hepatitis C is an epidemic in certain prisons, Stemple said. Men as well as women run the risk of being raped while in prison, she said. One in five men have been sexually assaulted while in prison and one in ten have been raped.
Stemple said among women inmates, the rate of sexual abuse can be as high as 27 percent in some prisons. In addition, women have become pregnant while imprisoned, which often is an indication they have been raped by male guards, she said.
Although federal prison officials have been criticized for failing to address the issue, members of Congress have taken it quite seriously and last month bi-partisan legislation called the Prison Rape Reduction Act was introduced in both the Senate and the House. The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on the Act next Wednesday.
Reducing the spread of disease is one goal of the act, said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who co-sponsored the legislation in the Senate with Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. Prison rape "threatens the rest of society, by increasing the spread of HIV and other diseases, and by making individuals, brutalized within prison, more likely to commit new crimes after they are released," Kennedy said.
The Rape Reduction Act would establish a national commission to set up standards for reducing and eliminating prison rape. Federal prisons would have to adopt these standards and state prisons could only opt out of them if their state legislature votes not to participate.
The Act would require the Justice Department to conduct an annual review of prison rape to determine prisons where the incidence is unusually high. States with prisons that fall in the worst third of rape incidence would have to go before a review panel and explain their situation.
Nolan said the legislation is very likely to pass because it has strong bi-partisan support across both branches of Congress and it is endorsed by several different organizations concerned with human rights. He believes it will be effective at reducing prison rape and rampant rates of HIV and other diseases in prison.
A major part of the problem is prison officials condone rape among inmates, Nolan said. "There have been correctional officials who have tried to deal with this but in general the system pretends it doesn't exist," he said.
Indeed, sometimes it is used by guards to control or punish inmates. Nolan related an account of a case in a California prison in which guards transferred an inmate who had kicked a female guard to the cell of a prisoner nicknamed "Booty bandit." The prisoner, who was twice the size of the offending inmate, beat and raped him for about a week until guards finally transferred him out of the cell, Nolan said.
"Correction officers turn a blind eye," Stemple said, adding she has heard accounts of officers watching rape on surveillance cameras or hearing screams in the night and not doing anything to help the victims.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons and the National Institute of Corrections declined to comment on this story.