After Three Decades, the Fight to End Prisoner Rape Continues

"Rape, which no judge has ever declared a fit penalty for a crime, is inflicted daily on prisoners whose sole offense may have been their inability to make bail."

So wrote Stephen "Donny" Donaldson, former President of Just Detention International (JDI) in a New York Times op-ed in 1993. Twenty years earlier, when he was in jail for trespassing on White House property during a peace protest, Donny was gang-raped 60 times over the course of two days.

Back in the early days of JDI -- founded in 1980 as People Organized to Stop the Rape of Imprisoned Persons (POSRIP) -- sexual abuse in detention was shrouded in silence. Russell D. Smith, a prisoner rape survivor who formed POSRIP shortly after getting off the bus from the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, said, "Nobody was even thinking about the subject, much less speaking out against it."

The JDI leaders who followed Smith -- including Donny and his friend Tom Cahill -- dared to tell the truth about the abuse they had endured and to demand corrections reform. Now, 30 years later, no one can deny the shameful epidemic of sexual abuse in U.S. prisons, jails, and youth detention facilities.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of Russell, Donny, Tom, and countless others, the public debate on rape behind bars has changed dramatically, especially among corrections officials. At first, survivor advocates were answered only with silence. Then, denial. Later, if sexual abuse was acknowledged, it was thought of as something that happened rarely, or was an issue elsewhere.

Today, there are corrections officials throughout the U.S. who no longer ask, "Why do we need to talk about sexual abuse?" but rather, "What can we do to reduce this problem in our facilities?"

We've come a long way, but we're not finished yet. Even after the release of a series of government studies, which found that more than 100,000 men, women, and children had been sexually abused behind bars during the previous year alone, there are still corrections leaders who minimize the problem of prisoner rape. Most detention facilities are far from instituting even the most basic reforms necessary to protect each inmate's basic right to be free from sexual abuse.

Despite these challenges, the effort to end sexual abuse in detention is among the most hopeful human rights initiatives of our time. Prisoner rape can and must be stopped; this is a battle we can win.

The progress over the past 30 years has been staggering. The early leaders of this movement could hardly have imagined that in 2003 Congress would unanimously pass the U.S. Prison Rape Elimination Act. Or that in 2009 a bipartisan national commission would release standards designed to prevent and respond to sexual abuse in detention facilities throughout the country. Or that the organization they founded would be working, as JDI is today, in collaboration with corrections officials -- to train prison staff on human rights norms, and to teach people behind bars how to get help if they are abused.

Back in 1993, three years before dying of AIDS -- the result of rape behind bars -- Donny wrote:

When will the attacks end? Not until the public turns its averted eyes back to the walls that were built and are maintained at great expense by taxpayers to promote the public safety. Not until all staff members are trained more effectively to prevent rape and to respond sympathetically to victims... None of this will happen unless we break the wall of silence around sexual violence in our jails.

The wall of silence is broken. Donny is no longer with us, but we can make the rest of his vision a reality. A critical tool that could dramatically improve safety in detention is within our reach. National standards addressing prisoner rape, developed by a bipartisan federal commission, were to be finalized by the U.S. Attorney General this summer.

Unfortunately, Attorney General Eric Holder missed his deadline, and it could be as long as a year before final standards are put into place. What's more, some corrections officials who are opposed to the measures are pressuring Holder to water down the proposed standards, jeopardizing the potential for true progress.

We are reminded of the urgent need for these protections by the hundreds of letters from prisoner rape survivors that JDI receives each month. As we honor 30 years of survivors speaking out for justice, Attorney General Holder needs to act as quickly as possible to codify a robust set of national standards. No matter what crime someone has committed, rape must never be a part of the penalty.