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White House steps up efforts against prison rape

(AP) WASHINGTON - The White House on Thursday ordered federal, state and local prisons, jails and detention facilities to step up the fight against prison rape, issuing mandatory screening, enforcement and prevention regulations in hopes of reducing sexual victimization behind bars.

While the regulations have been in the works for years, the announcement comes on the heels of a Justice Department survey of former state and local prisoners that showed almost one in every 10 said they were sexually victimized at least once in prison by prison staff or other inmates.

"Sexual violence, against any victim, is an assault on human dignity and an affront to American values," President Barack Obama said in a White House memo.

The new regulations are immediately binding on federal prisons. They include screening inmates for the potential of sexual victimization and using that information in housing and work assignments, requiring background checks on employees, keeping juvenile inmates away from adult inmates, and requiring evidence preservation after a reported incident and requiring termination as the presumptive punishment for staff members.

States who don't fall in line face a loss of 5 percent of their Justice Department prison money unless their governor certifies that the same amount of money is being used to be bring the state into compliance. Prison accreditation organizations also will be banned from getting federal grants unless they include similar anti-prison rape standards in their accreditation process.

Obama also announced that the Prison Rape Elimination Act would apply to all federal confinement facilities, and all other agencies with confinement facilities were required to have protocol to fight prison rape within a year.

"The standards we establish today reflect the fact that sexual assault crimes committed within our correctional facilities can have devastating consequences for individual victims and for communities far beyond our jails and prisons," Attorney General Eric Holder said. "These standards are the result of a thoughtful and deliberative process and represent a critical step forward in protecting the rights and safety of all Americans."

The Obama administration announcement came as the Bureau of Justice Statistics released its first-ever National Former Prisoners Survey, which found that 9.6 percent of former inmates said they were sexually victimized in jails, prisons and halfway houses. A somewhat similar survey of still-imprisoned convicts done by the same agency in 2008-09 found that only 4.4 percent of state and federal inmates said they were sexually victimized.

The difference may be because the former inmates in the current survey were asked about a longer time period than in the previous survey, said Allen J. Beck, one of the authors of the survey. But it also could be that former inmates may be more willing to talk about the sexual victimization than the inmates currently housed inside those facilities, who have concerns about retaliation or retribution for speaking up. Critics have said inmates may be willing to lie on these surveys in an attempt to embarrass a facility or refuse to report an incident for fear of retaliation.

"By looking at inmates who are out of that environment, who no longer have that immediate fear of retaliation, of retribution, who moreover don't have an immediate motivation to falsely accuse since they're out of the facility entirely, we get a sense that through interviewing these former inmates that our past work is confirmed, that some of the concerns about false negatives and false positives may have been overstated," Beck said.

The study defines sexual victimization as all types of unwanted sexual activity with other inmates, abusive sexual activity with other inmates and both willing and unwilling sexual activity with staff.

Among the survey's findings:

— Just about the same number of former inmates were victimized by facility staff as were victimized by other inmates. About 27,300 — 5.4 percent — reported incidents with other inmates, while 23,300 — 5.3 percent — reported incidents that involved facility staff. Of the former inmates who reported incidents with staff, 6,300 — or 1.2 percent — of the former inmates said they had unwilling sex or sexual contact with staff, while the rest said they "willingly" had sexual contact with the staff member.

Any sexual contact between staff and inmate is officially classified as nonconsensual. Prisons uniformly forbid inmate-staff sexual contact.

— A fourth of the former inmates who were victimized by other inmates said they had been physically held down or restrained, and a quarter also said they were physically injured or harmed during the attack.

— Half of the former inmates who were victimized by facility staff members said they were offered favors or privileges in exchange, while a third said they were talked into it.

— The majority of the sexual victimizations occurred in state prisons: 7.5 percent of inmates reported being victimized at least once there, while 1.8 percent reported incidents in local jails and 0.1 percent in halfway houses or other post-release community-treatment facilities.

— Gay and bisexual men seemed to be by far the most frequently targeted in prison. The survey said that 39 percent of men who were gay and 34 percent of bisexual men reported being sexually victimized by another inmate, while only 3.5 percent of heterosexual men reported incidents. Lesbian and heterosexual women reported incidents with other inmates at the same rates — 13 percent — while staff victimization was double for lesbian women — 8 percent — compared with heterosexual women — 4 percent.

The survey, which interviewed 18,526 former inmates on parole, is representative of 510,800 former state prisoners who were still on parole in the 50 states and the District of Columbia at mid-year 2008.

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