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Arkansas Considers Prison Rape Law, Problems Evident

by Michael Rigby

Nearly two years after the Prison Rape Elimination Act, (PREA) passed unopposed in the U.S. House and Senate, an attitude of indifference and skepticism surrounding prison sexual assaults still permeates the Arkansas Department of Corrections (ADC).

Signed into law on, September 4, 2003, as Public Law 108-79, the PREA authorizes the Bureau of Justice Statistics to collect statistical data and calls for a federal commission to devise standards aimed at combating prison rape. The law also requires states to track prison sexual assaults and encourages prison officials and lawmakers to attack the problem at the state level.

Because Arkansas stands to lose money if it doesn't comply--federal funding to states failing to meet the standards will be reduced by 5% a year--the Arkansas Board of Corrections met on June 9, 2005, to vote on the state's planned compliance. For Arkansas, which augments its annual $231 million prison budget with $840,000 in federal grant money, the reduction equates to a loss of $42,000.

According to the text of the law, an estimated 13% of the nation's 2.1 million prisoners have been sexually assaulted in prison. Experts note the consequences are far reaching--especially since an estimated 95% of prisoners will someday be released. The risks associated with sexual assault in prison ... extend beyond prison walls," testified Lara Stemple, executive director of Stop Prisoner Rape, before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in 2002. Upon release, rape survivors may bring with them emotional scars, sexually transmitted infections and learned violent behavior that continue the cycle of harm.

The ADC's sexual assault statistics are drastically lower than what national estimates would suggest for a prison system with 13,000-plus prisoners. In fact, over the past 5 years Arkansas prison officials referred just 34 sexual assault cases to the State Police for investigation. Only 3 were prosecuted.

Some prison officials concede the numbers are underreported. But rather than address the true culprits--skepticism, indifference, fear of retaliation--they blame the victims. A lot of these inmates fall into the age-old trap of bought you four Honey Buns, now pay up,'" said ADC spokeswoman Dina Tyler. She didn't say how prisoners invite sexual assault by guards.

Others infer the problem is exaggerated. I'd like to think our institutions are safe," said ADC Director Larry Norris at a recent conference in Hot Springs. ADC is just a big old family," he continued. Even convicts are part of the family." If so, the relationship is one of violence and incest.

When Kendell Spruce arrived at the Cummins Unit in the early 1990's, he was sexually assaulted within days. Then 28, Spruce had been imprisoned for forgery. By the time he left Cummins in 1992, Spruce said he had been sexually assaulted hundreds of times by at least 27 different men.
It was regular, hourly. Oh Lord, I was dead. I was tossed aside, and here comes another one," said Spruce, now 42. He said the prisoners bribed guards with candy, soda, and cigarettes to turn a deaf ear" to his cries for help. Spruce filed seven federal lawsuits between 1991 and 1997 alleging prison officials failed to protect him from the assaults: but all were dismissed. They didn't want to hear it," he said. They said it was because I was gay. It doesn't matter. Rape is rape.

Tyler claimed Spruce's allegations were unsubstantiated. In 1998, however, the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals noted that then-Cummins Warden Willis Sargent testified in federal district court that inmates in prison had to fight' against sexual aggressors; i.e. it is the inmates own responsibility to let people understand that [they're] not going to put up with that.'

Even when sexual assault complaints are substantiated, it means little. In October 2002, Guard John Berry, 40, was fired for sexually assaulting a prisoner at the Tucker maximum-security prison. Now he guards kids at two juvenile prisons. According to a June 16, 2005, Associated Press article, Berry is employed full-time at a juvenile prison in Pine Bluff and part-time at the Alexander Youth Services Center (AYSC). The Alexander prison is operated by Cornell Companies Inc., a private contractor. It's unknown if Berry has molested any of the children at those prisons.

Sources: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, AP

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