Prisoner abuse oft ignored in reform talks

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Over the past year and a half, much light has been shed on police brutality in America. Videos of violent misconduct by officers against both Eric Garner and Sandra Bland surfaced and circulated online, leading to outrage and demands for reform. But, even with all that exposure, one form of misconduct in the American criminal justice system that still gets very little coverage is prisoner abuse.

Americans in general have an unhealthy view of prisoners’ rights. Once someone is sentenced to jail time, the prevailing sentiment is that whatever happens to them while they are incarcerated is part of the punishment for the crime they committed. In reality, prison is the punishment. We should not overlook abuses in our correctional system and chalk them up to being part of the norm.

When prisoners are victims of excessive force by correctional officers, they are not “getting what they deserve”; rather, prisoners are being unlawfully treated by staff that are meant to protect and support them over the course of their sentence, not abuse them. When other prisoners abuse them, it should not be treated any differently than it would be had they been assaulted on the street.

Thankfully, there has been some progress over the last 15 years in regards to studying and reigning in prisoner abuse. In 2003, Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act, requiring prisons to analyze and report the numbers of sexual assaults that occurred within their facilities. That was an important first step. But, statistics released every few years about the number of prisoners who report being sexually assaulted show that the numbers are staggering.

In a 2012 survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), 4 percent of the U.S. prison population and 3.2 percent of jail inmates reported being sexually assaulted at least once over the past 12 months. According to the BJS, that translates to roughly 200,000 possible victims per year. The problem with this statistic is that it only counts victims, rather than total sexual assaults. An inmate who is assaulted once is counted the same as an inmate assaulted twice or an inmate assaulted on a weekly basis, making the problem of prison abuse seem less severe.

A report released by the BJS in January 2014 revealed that 49 percent of “unwanted sexual misconduct or harassment” suffered by inmates between 2009 and 2011 was at the hands of correctional officers or staff. Acts covered in the report ranged from verbal sexual harassment to nonconsensual sexual penetration. According to Justice Department statistics, when these sexual abuse claims were substantiated, more than 75 percent of offending officers were fired or resigned and 45 percent were referred for prosecution. But, only 1 percent were ever convicted of a crime.

Sexual abuse is not the only type of abuse suffered by inmates. In 2012, the BJS reported 5.8 million violent crimes self-reported by prisoners in 2012. Considering a U.S. prison population estimated at 2.2 million, 5.8 million violent crimes is an average of more than 2.5 per inmate. It is also nearly five times higher than the number of violent crimes self-reported that same year by members of the general population, according to the FBI.

There is also the case of David Stojcevski, a 32-year-old Detroit man who was jailed for failing to pay a $772 careless driving ticket in June 2014. During his 30-day sentence, Stojcevski lost 50 pounds and died of withdrawal due to a lack of medical care. His slow, painful death was captured on surveillance footage and has led to a wrongful death suit from his family.

On June 22, 2015, the Supreme Court released an opinion that was lost in the shuffle caused by the impending gay marriage decision. In a 5-4 decision in Kingsley v. Hendrickson, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of pretrial detainees who were being abused by officers, stating that if force used by officers was “objectively unreasonable,” it did not matter whether or not the officer was “subjectively aware” that the force they used was unreasonable or excessive. This was a significant victory for prisoners’ rights, but it is applied only to prisoners awaiting trial. Steps must be taken to also protect prisoners who have been sentenced.

The federal government must start analyzing prison-violence statistics on an annual basis instead of every few years. In addition, steps must be taken to prosecute those who commit sexual assault in prison, whether they are guards or other inmates. Ultimately, we must begin to see those who make up our prison population as human beings who have not lost their rights as a result of their incarceration. It is through these actions that we can make meaningful strides to combat prison violence.