Prison Legal News battles DOC censorship of important information on sexual violence in prisons

Prison Legal News battles DOC censorship of important information on sexual violence in prisons

By Christopher Zoukis

Prison Legal News has launched an important lawsuit against Arizona’s Department of Corrections over the withholding of their publication from prisoners.

The editions in question discuss documented cases of rape and sexual violence perpetrated by prison staff against inmates—one of which took place in an Arizona prison and was heard in federal court. Many inmates are unaware of their rights when it comes to protection from rape and sexual assault. And the dissemination of such information is vital in world where jokes about prison rape are still deemed acceptable by the general public.

Now there are two possible scenarios for withholding the publication. The first is that whoever is vetting the publication is so absolutely clueless that they think that a publication describing how to prevent sexual assault in prisons will actually promote it. In which case, they need to do some serious assessment of their hiring practices. And given that the information contained in the issue in question was already readily available to prisoners, this seems a particularly remote possibility. The second, and to my mind far more likely, scenario is that prison officials are reluctant to provide prisoners with information that might cast light on the fact that Arizona prisons are amongst the worst violators when it comes to the types of crimes described in the publication. Because Prison Legal News is a cornerstone in the fight to protect the human rights of incarcerated individuals central to that mission is ensuring that prisoners know their rights, and how to protect them. And when it comes to sexual violence, Arizona has repeatedly demonstrated a callous lack of concern for either inmates or staff.

Time and time again, Arizona has failed to comply with the Prison Rape Elimination Act.  For the last two years, they have failed to file the necessary paperwork to demonstrate compliance, resulting in the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding from federal grants.  Counsel for the governor’s office made a bizarre statement suggesting they’re not particularly concerned by these failures, ““Because we believe Arizona is in compliance with PREA, the use of federal funds in this manner is simply not necessary at this time.” This seems particularly strange in light of their excuses for not meeting the deadline in 2014, when Governor Brewer stated that “Arizona’s issue ‘is not with PREA itself, but with the regulations recently adopted by the DOJ.’ The Department of Justice, she claimed had created ‘unreasonable and costly unfunded mandates well beyond the original scope of the requirements established in PREA.’” If the mandates are so costly, then how is it they don’t need the federal funds to ensure compliance?

PREA matters. A lot. The number of sexual assaults in prison has dropped from the double to single digits since its enactment. And it matters for everyone involved in the prison system. For inmates, for staff, for volunteers. Even the recent case of an Arizona teacher who was raped by an inmate after being placed in an unguarded classroom with a sex offender highlights the government’s complete and utter lack of awareness surrounding the issues. Their response to claims of negligence? “By being placed in a classroom at the complex, the officers were not placing Plaintiff in any type of situation that she would not normally face. The risk of harm, including assault, always existed at a prison like Eyman.” In layman’s terms? She should have expected that to happen. In those few sentences they’ve managed to encapsulate everything that’s wrong with Arizona’s approach to dealing with rape in prison—they blame the victim and assume that rape is, and should simply remain, a part of prison life. Just like the inmates, this woman deserved to be able to live and work an environment where she felt protected from the possibility of sexual assault.  Arizona lost an incredible woman who dedicated her life to helping prisoners break the cycle of recidivism, to inspiring people everyone else had given up on, to offering hope where many had none–because they treat rape like it’s no big deal, and they treat laws like PREA as being “optional.”  

Experts have characterized the Arizona DOC’s quality of care, particularly when it comes to mental illness, as amongst the worst in the country. The man who assaulted this teacher was high-risk, incarcerated for the exact same type of crime he inflicted upon her. And if you think these assaults are meted out only on staff or volunteers, you are sorely mistaken. Current rates of sexual assault against inmates are unacceptable, and are likely seriously underreported. Because when you know prison officials view sexual violence as simply being a part of daily life, why would you bother reporting it? Arizona has demonstrated a vested interest in keeping inmates uninformed and, ultimately, silent when it comes to rape and sexual assault behind prison walls. And in doing so, the impact is being felt far beyond those walls.

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