Magazine article Corrections Today

Corrections Officials + Advocates = Safer Prisons and Jails

Magazine article Corrections Today

Corrections Officials + Advocates = Safer Prisons and Jails

Article excerpt

In 1984, photographer and Air Force veteran Tom Cahill smashed a plate-glass door at the San Francisco Chronicle. He did so in a fit of fury, in response to the indifference he encountered among the paper's reporters when he tried to bring to their attention the problem of sexual violence in U.S. prisons and jails. Cahill is the first to admit that he--at the time--was a desperate man, tormented by flashbacks and nightmares, his personal and professional life in ruins.

Cahill's story began in 1968 when he was arrested in Texas during a peaceful anti-war protest. As a veteran who was against the war, he was unpopular among jail staff in the military town of San Antonio. Before being placed in an overcrowded communal cell, false word had been put out that he was a child molester. Cahill remembers with a shudder how one of the staff members shouted "fresh meat,'1 before leaving him in the cell. Twenty-four hours later--24 hours of gang rape and beatings later--his life was shattered.

Today, more than four decades after Cahill's horrific abuse, sexual violence still exists in U.S. prisons and jails. However, thanks to him and other survivors of such abuse, this crisis is no longer shrouded in silence.


Conscientious corrections officials have always recognized the enormous personal toll that sexual abuse takes on its survivors. They also see the damage it does inside their facilities and to their own professional missions. Just Detention International (JDI) hears regularly from staff at prisons and jails that sexual abuse increases overall levels of violence and tension, undermines staff authority, contributes to homicides and suicides, correlates with the presence of contraband and decreases inmate and staff morale.

Until recently, however, the combination of public indifference to sexual abuse behind bars and official underreporting or denial of this type of violence made it difficult for well-meaning corrections officials to address the problem effectively. Lack of knowledge about the nature and prevalence of sexual violence inside U.S. prisons and jails made it even harder.

This all began to change when Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) in 2003. JDI played a significant role in developing and advocating in favor of this landmark legislation, and appropriately, Cahill stood in the Oval Office side-by-side with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and a handful of others when President George W. Bush signed PREA into law. If it had not been for a letter Cahill sent to Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., which triggered his interest in the crisis of prisoner rape and in developing and sponsoring PREA, this law might not have existed.

Since then, studies by the Bureau of Justice Statistics based on anonymous inmate surveys have gradually begun revealing the extent of sexual abuse in detention. The bipartisan National Prison Rape Elimination Commission and the experts on whom the commission relied--mostly corrections officials, but also JDI staff, survivors and other experts--has made it clear that sexual abuse in detention is a preventable problem, and has shown in considerable detail how to prevent it. Public attitudes also have been changing, as illustrated by the many newspaper editorials written on the subject by leading newspapers such as The Washington Post and The New York Times. Sexual violence in prison is no longer something the public takes for granted or is willing to tolerate without question.


Corrections officials and advocacy organizations like JDI tend to find themselves in oppositional relationships. After all, pointing out failings and shortcomings of the government and arguing that things could be done better is central to the mission of any advocacy organization. And for their part, career professionals, such as those working in corrections, often feel that no matter how well-meaning an advocacy organization may be, it still consists of outsiders making arguments about issues they do not sufficiently understand. …

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