Hawaii has a prisoner rape problem. Here’s how to stop it.

  • Lovisa Stannow
  • June 11, 2019
  • Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Prisoner rape is a devastating crime that occurs with staggering frequency. Every year, roughly 200,000 people are sexually abused in U.S. prisons, jails, and youth detention facilities. It may be tempting to dismiss this violence as a problem that primarily afflicts states with large prison systems, like California, Louisiana, and Texas. But states that lock up relatively few people aren’t any better at running safe facilities. Hawaii incarcerates roughly 5,600 people — fewer than the population of Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison — but its facilities have higher rates of sexual abuse than the national average.

Despite what many people believe, rape in prison — in any prison — is absolutely preventable. In fact, there are common-sense, concrete steps that prisons are required to take to increase safety. The reason many don’t is simple: bad leadership. At the Women’s Community Correctional Center (WCC), a prison in Kailua that is the focus of a federal lawsuit, sexually abusive officers acted with impunity, confident that their supervisors would not hold them accountable.

One of the defendants in the lawsuit boasted to his victim that he was “friends with the warden,” and that her word meant nothing because she was “just an inmate.”

The WCC scandal underscores the need for strong prison oversight — for a system that shines a light on corrections leaders who fail to protect the people in their custody from sexual abuse. Fortunately, a bipartisan effort is underway to put such a system in place.

Last year, Congress passed a law to beef up the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) audits, which so far have failed to provide meaningful scrutiny. WCC is a case in point; the prison earned perfect marks on its most recent PREA audit — a disheartening outcome given that alleged perpetrators were on staff during the time period under review.

A leader in the push for tougher monitoring of prisons is Hawaii U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz. In April, he and Republican Sen. John Cornyn penned a letter urging the Senate Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee to allocate money in next year’s budget to address sexual abuse in detention. This funding would add teeth to PREA’s oversight, providing the Department of Justice with the resources to track and evaluate the thousands of detention audits that happen every year. Under the new system, auditors who do a poor job will be decertified. One wonders how much harm could have been avoided at WCC if its auditor’s flawed prior assessments had been thoroughly examined.

Federal spending on PREA will also help states adopt measures that are necessary to address rape behind bars. Last year’s PREA allocation of $15.5 million — which Schatz and Cornyn helped secure — allowed the government to revive a grants program for corrections agencies that are serious about prisoners’ rights. With this money, prisons and jails can work with outside advocates on providing trauma services to inmates — the kinds of services that the women at WCC so desperately needed.

Government funding is never a sure thing. But prisoner rape has long been one of the rare issues upon which Democrats and Republicans agree. Let’s hope that continues to be the case.

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