Bipartisan drive to end prison rapes includes Hawaii senator

  • Lovisa Stannow
  • May 17, 2018
  • Honolulu Star-Advertiser

A few years ago, I received a harrowing series of letters from a man serving time in Halawa Correctional Facility in Honolulu. The man, whom I will refer to as Joseph, was desperate. He had been sexually assaulted twice, he said, each time by a different officer. When he tried to report the abuse, Joseph wrote, staff punished him severely. One of his letters included photos of his bloodied face — apparent payback for “snitching.”Joseph’s story is depressingly common. Every year, 200,000 people are sexually abused in U.S. prisons, jails and youth detention facilities. Historically, this violence has been low on the list of national priorities. But a dramatic shift is underway. Advocates fighting to stop this violence, many survivors themselves, are being heard, including by leaders on Capitol Hill.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii has become one of Congress’ most outspoken champions of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA).

In the 15 years since it became law, PREA has fundamentally changed the way that we — as a nation — address inmate safety. Once an afterthought, sexual abuse prevention and response is now a core of part of every officer’s training. And countless prisoners have safe ways to report sexual abuse and can get help if they need it.

But for all that PREA has accomplished, rape behind bars is still widespread. While some corrections agencies are working to implement PREA meaningfully, many more are not — and that means that too many people like Joseph are subjected to devastating abuse while in our government’s custody.

Schatz and others recognize that ending this violence requires a long-term commitment, and is determined to ensure that Congress makes that commitment. For PREA to fulfill its potential to transform our prisons, it has to remain on the government’s agenda. Working closely with U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, Schatz has fought for PREA to get adequate federal funding.

Their effort succeeded, and then some. The final spending bill, which was signed into law in March, included a record $15.5 million for programs to end rape behind bars. This funding will allow the Department of Justice to restart a grant initiative for states and counties to become models for change in addressing sexual abuse. In addition, it will allow for a much-needed strengthening of the woeful PREA auditing system, increasing accountability for dangerous facilities.

These dollars will make a difference. But the fight is far from over; fortunately, work is already underway to get PREA funded in 2019 as well. And Schatz is leading a parallel effort to ensure the safety of detainees in immigration facilities, who are especially vulnerable to sexual abuse.

Such bipartisan collaboration may seem unusual in this era of intense partisanship. But the fight to stop prisoner rape has always transcended party politics. PREA’s original Senate sponsors were the late Ted Kennedy and then-Sen. Jeff Sessions — two politicians who could hardly have been more different. And their counterparts in the House were just as incongruous: the liberal Bobby Scott and the conservative Frank Wolf.

It was Ted Kennedy who perhaps summed up best why PREA draws support from people of all political stripes. Sexual abuse violence in detention “is not a liberal or a conservative issue,” he said. “It is an issue of basic decency and human rights.”

Lovisa Stannow is executive director of Just Detention International, a human rights group based in Los Angeles.

Originally posted here