Taking Action against Prisoner Rape: PREA as a tool for justice activists

By Sonny Suchdev, Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project (CHAMP)

NOVEMBER 2006 • Issue 1

Rape in prison is an ugly reality that most people have learned to ignore, but prisoner rape is an institutionalized form of cruelty that infringes upon basic human rights, contributes to the spread of disease, and perpetuates violence both inside and outside of prison walls.

– Lara Stemple, former Executive Director, Stop Prisoner Rape

Prisoner rape is a widespread problem in detention facilities across the country, affecting adults and youth of all genders. According to prisoner rape advocates, overcrowding and insufficient staffing are key contributors to prisoner rape; as the criminal justice system locks up more and more people in the nation with the highest rate of incarceration in the world, the problem only gets worse.

A recent study found that approximately one in five male inmates in four different Midwestern prisons reported pressured or forces sex while incarcerated, and one in ten male inmates reported being raped. Women are most likely to be abused be male staff members, and one recent study found a rate of 27 percent of women reporting pressured or forced sex. Young people in facilities with adults are five times more likely to experience sexual assault than youth in juvenile facilities. (SPR, “The Basics on Rape Behind Bars,” spr.org).

Often overlooked or portrayed as a joke, prisoner rape should be an issue of concern to all in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Correctional institutions have a rate of HIV/AIDS that is five to ten times higher than in the general U.S. population. While widespread research is not currently available, it is clear that inmates have contracted HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases through prisoner rape.

Stop Prisoner Rape (SPR), the country’s only organization that focuses exclusively on prisoner rape, has released the “Call for Change,” (see below) which addresses the fact that gay and transgender persons behind bars are especially vulnerable to sexual violence. CHAMP has signed onto the Call for Change and encourages other HIV/AIDS organizations to do the same.

But what else can local advocates and activists do about prisoner rape? Federal legislation that condemns prisoner rape actually exists, which can serve as a useful tool at the local level. In 2001, SPR joined a bi-partisan and very politically disparate coalition (including right wing fundamentalist groups as well as progressive forces) that worked to pass federal legislation to address prison rape in all detention facilities nationwide. They won the passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) in September 2003.

The key provisions of PREA are:

• Establishing a zero-tolerance standard for any kind of sexual assaults within correctional systems;
• Mandating collection of national data on the incidence of prisoner rape;
• Providing funding for research and program development;
• Creating a federal commission to hold hearings and develop standards for states on how to
address sexual violence in prisons;
• Creating a review panel to hold hearings to determine the best and worst performing detention facilities in the country.

Most correctional administrators don’t take the issue of prisoner rape seriously. But local activists can put pressure on jails and prisons in their areas to adopt pro-active standards to implement PREA’s zero tolerance mandate, using the language of PREA as leverage in getting correctional facilities to adopt more specific measures to support survivors of sexual violence, as well as to prevent sexual violence. PREA provides a powerful way for local groups to say to correctional administrators that stopping prison rape is not only the right thing to do, but it is also the law.

However, PREA is not necessarily always being used in ways that help the fight against HIV/AIDS. It has been used by some people to justify lack of condoms in prisons. In testimony to the state legislature, New York’s Health Commissioner Glenn S. Goord stated: “Prison system policies banning condoms are also consistent with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003. It requires that the states take the steps necessary to reduce the opportunity for, and incidence of, inmate sexual assault… I’m not certain we should become the second state in the nation to distribute condoms in the face of that law.”

But in reality, there is no evidence that availability of condoms in prisons increasing incidence of sexual assault. In fact, SPR supports access to condoms in prisons. It is vital to recognize that not all sex in prisons is coercive and that incarcerated people should have access to condoms to prevent the spread of HIV and other STIs.

Kathy Hall-Martinez from SPR states, “The high incidence of rape behind bars makes access to condoms imperative… Condom distribution is a critically needed public health measure. The availability of condoms lessens the likelihood that rape in prison constitutes an un-adjudicated death sentence.”

PREA has created a number of different areas of government intervention into prison rape, mostly focused on research and measuring incidence, training, and on mechanisms for states to get grants. SPR acknowledges that PREA needs to be strengthened, and advocates need to work on many other fronts to end rape in prisons. For example, the legislation does not help survivors of sexual violence to take legal action against correctional officers. Next year, the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission (created through PREA) is releasing specific standards for PREA, which SPR believes will strengthen the law.

Endorsements Sought:
A CALL FOR CHANGE: Protecting the Rights of LGBT Detainees
This is a summary of Stop Prisoner Rape’s Call For Change. See the full document at http://
http://www.champnetwork.org/media/callchange.pdf & contact Cynthia Totten at ctotten@spr.org to sign on.


In an environment in which sexual violence occurs with some frequency, it is well known that being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender place a prisoner at heightened risk of torture, sexual assault, rape, and ill treatment. LGBT prisoners have little access to protection from these crimes and generally tend to endure them in silence. This is due to a number of factors including the fact that LGBT inmates may be disliked and feared by some guards, as well as by other inmates. LGBT inmates also fear retaliation and breaches of confidentiality if they report sexual abuse. They may fear triggering more attacks if they become known as someone who was raped.

This Call for Change presents proposals that are meant to complement existing standards. If implemented, these policies will significantly decrease the sexual assault of LGBT detainees.

A CALL FOR CHANGE: Protecting the Rights of LGBT Detainees

Summary of Recommendations

1. Inmate Awareness
All detainees need to know that sexual abuse is
never acceptable. All detainees must be given a
handbook detailing information about the policies
related to sexual conduct at the facility where they
are housed.
2. Promoting Safety
One of the most important tools available to
custodial personnel to prevent prisoner rape is the
appropriate classification of detainees. While
anyone can be a victim of sexual violence behind
bars, typical victims are young, nonviolent, first-
time offenders who are effeminate, physically
small, weak, and/or shy. Gay, bisexual, and
transgender detainees or those perceived as such
are exceptionally vulnerable to rape. Corrections
staff must therefore take special care in
determining the housing arrangements for these
3. Staff Screening and Training
Proper staff screening is an essential safeguard
against sexual violence. Regular staff training –
including the development of clear standards for
on-the-job conduct and a zero-tolerance policy with
respect to sexual violence – sets a tone of
institutional seriousness and professionalism.
4. Responding to Sexual Violence
Taking action in a timely and professional manner
to address allegations of sexual assault is an
essential component in minimizing harmful
consequences to victims and in breaking the cycle
of sexual abuse in detention.
5. External Monitoring, Reporting and Services
A climate of openness and transparency
encourages the safer operation of institutions.
External, independent monitoring will also help
strengthen the public’s trust in the commitment of
corrections institutions to adhere to required
standards. Furthermore, providing detainees with
information about resources provided by outside
organizations will help survivors of sexual abuse in
their healing process.

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Filed under gay and bisexual men, gender, prison, sexual violence, Solidarity Project, stigma, trans and gender non-conforming, Uncategorized, women, youth

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