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A Devastating Link: Prisoner Rape and the War on Drugs

by Lovisa Stannow and Kathy Hall-Martinez

The enormous financial and moral costs of the ?war on drugs? have been well-documented over the past few years. Less known is the devastating link between U.S. drug policy and the epidemic of prisoner rape.

With laws requiring longer sentences for drug offenses and less judicial discretion for leniency, the war on drugs has had a profound impact ? just not the impact that was intended. Instead of resolving the problems of drug use and drug addiction, these policies have resulted in a mushrooming of the prison and jail population, which has contributed to the rampant sexual abuse behind bars.

Of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in the U.S. today, more than 500,000 are imprisoned on drug charges, with hundreds of thousands more convicted of drug-motivated crimes. Federal, state, and local governments are building ever more prisons and jails ? and existing facilities remain seriously overcrowded and dangerous.

Prisoner rape is this country?s most widespread human rights emergency and the war on drugs is a major contributor to the crisis. Studies show that as many as 20 percent of male prisoners have been pressured or coerced into sex, and 10 percent have been raped. While any detainee can become the victim of prisoner rape, people serving drug sentences, many of whom are young, unschooled in the ways of prison life, and non-violent, are among those at greatest risk.

With little or no institutional protection, prisoner rape survivors are left with physical injuries, are impregnated against their will, contract HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, and suffer severe psychological harm. The emotional and physical scars of this abuse can fester for years, even after the person returns home.

John Cooks is a case in point. Sentenced under New York?s harsh Rockefeller Drug Laws for attempted possession of a controlled substance, Mr. Cooks was sent to a maximum security prison facility and, despite being placed in protective custody, was raped by his cellmate.
He has since experienced extreme stress and anxiety, battles depression, and has attempted suicide several times. ?The pain never goes away,? Cooks says. ?Just because I?m in jail for drugs shouldn?t mean that I should be subjected to all of the things that I?m going through. Rather, nobody should go through what I?ve been through and am going through.?

The war on drugs needs to be reconsidered as a matter of urgency. We have succeeded in putting more people behind bars per capita than any other country in the world, without making a dent in the trade and use of illicit drugs. Meanwhile, we have set up thousands of non-violent men and women for sexual abuse behind bars and life-long emotional trauma.

Rape should never be part of anyone?s punishment. Survivors like John Cooks have become the casualties of the war on drugs; they are men and women who have paid far too high a price for such a futile crusade.

Lovisa Stannow and Kathy Hall-Martinez are the Co-Executive Directors of Stop Prisoner Rape (SPR), a national human rights organization based in Los Angeles. For more information about the link between sexual violence behind bars and the war on drugs , or to receive resources for survivors of prisoner rape, please visit, or write to SPR at 3325 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 340, Los Angeles, CA 90010.

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