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1 in 10 inmates sexually assaulted behind bars

Published: Monday, June 4 2012 11:34 a.m. MDT

Inmates walk for exercise at the Utah State Prison Timpanogos Facility in Draper, Thursday, April 5, 2012.

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During the year she spent locked up in an Alabama prison, 31-year-old Stephanie Hibbett lived in fear of being raped.

Men had unrestricted access to the women's showers, and they'd often make comments about their bodies, she told the Associated Press. Once, while she was cleaning a trailer, a guard groped Hibbett's breasts and buttocks.

"A lot of it goes on in the middle of the night when no one thinks anyone is listening," she said. "I didn't sleep a lot. You'd see a woman get up and go into the bathroom and a guard go in after her and another one stand watch. Nobody would say anything. A lot were too scared."

About one in 10 former state prisoners were sexually victimized during their time behind bars, according to a new report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. More than 5 percent of former prisoners reported an incident involving facility staff and 3.7 percent said another inmate forced or pressured them to have nonconsensual sex. Women and minorities were victimized at higher rates, according to the data, which was collected in 2008. At 39 percent, homosexual inmates reported the highest rates of inmate-on-inmate sexual abuse.

The Department of Justice this month introduced new mandatory, nationwide standards to prevent rape in detention facilities. The new rules require state prisons to adopt zero-tolerance policies, lengthen the period in which inmates can report sexual abuse, improve victim services and provide strong protections for lesbian, gay and transgendered inmates. State facilities will be audited every three years.

Prisoner advocates called the move "a start."

"Within a few years, the official rape prevention rules in every correctional facility in the country will be a lot better than they were a decade ago," wrote Eli Lehrer, vice president of The Heartland Institute, in a Huffington Post editorial. "And, most likely, sexual assault will become less common behind bars as a result."

But he argued that the problem won't go away until the country starts taking prison rape seriously.

"And there's precious little sign of that happening," he wrote. "How many other serious violent crimes, after all, are fodder for sitcom punch-lines and late night talk show hosts?"

Some don't believe the government went far enough.

While the new standards discourage states from placing youths in adult facilities, The New York Times criticized the policy for failing to bar the practice, which puts children at greater risk of sexual assault.

"Congress should end this practice once and for all," the Times wrote. "Until that happens, the new rules will better protect young people by requiring that they be housed separately from adults, prohibiting contact with adults in common areas and limiting the use of solitary confinement for young people, who are more vulnerable to suicide when left alone."

EMAIL: estuart@desnews.com TWITTER: elizMstuart

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