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Shirley (left) and Nolan (Courtesy of Prison Fellowship)

'A stain on our nation'

Prisons | Groups from Prison Fellowship to the ACLU call on the Justice Department to enforce new standards to fight prison rape

WASHINGTON-A guard woke Marilyn Shirley in her prison cell at 2:30 in the morning, saying she was needed in the guardhouse. Arriving there, she noticed there were no female guards present. The guard called another guard to give him a signal if the prison lieutenant was heading to the office. Then he raped Shirley.

Shirley is just one face among 60,500 of the reported victims of sexual assault in prisons every year, or about one in every 20 inmates according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Among juveniles, the numbers are worse: One in eight are victims of sexual assault while incarcerated.

A number of groups who couldn't be more different are single-minded on eliminating prison rape. Prison Fellowship, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Family Research Council, Human Rights Watch, Focus on the Family, Sojourners, and others signed onto a letter Tuesday urging U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to implement new standards that would cut down prison rapes.

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The proposed standards, which are the result of a 2003 law, include simple changes like forbidding male guards from doing strip searches of female prisoners or supervising them in showers. Under the standards, prison guards would be required to have background checks and prison rapes would have to be treated like crimes-where evidence would be collected and witnesses interviewed.

"These [standards] are common sense," said Pat Nolan, vice president of Prison Fellowship, who himself spent time in federal prison. But a Justice Department consultant reviewed the measures and found some could be expensive to implement-like a requirement that prisons provide mental and medical health treatment for inmates who are victims of sexual assault. So while Holder was supposed to have enacted the standards in June after a year of review, he is holding off, perhaps for another year.

"If these standards had been in effect this never would have happened to me," Shirley told me. After the rape, she taped her semen-covered sweatpants under her locker-hiding them for evidence. She said the guard who raped her, Michael Miller, ordered all her clothes washed, but no one found the pants. She had been serving 18 months for a drug charge and feared that her sentence would be lengthened if she talked about the rape, so she served the remaining six months of her sentence in silence. The day she left prison, a female guard said, "This must be the happiest day of your life." Shirley started crying, pulled out the sweatpants and told her what happened. Miller is now serving a 12-year sentence for the rape.

During his trial, three other inmates testified that Miller had assaulted them, but no one had evidence like Shirley did-and few prisoners do. Since Shirley was released, she has received two $25 checks as compensation for what she experienced, while she covers all her medical bills for the panic attacks and depression she now experiences on a daily basis.

California and Oregon have already begun implementing the rape elimination standards on their own, and Nolan said "they haven't found the costs exorbitant." He pointed out that Michigan last year paid out $100 million in a settlement for prison sexual assault cases-a sum that doesn't include all the legal costs for the case that lasted over a decade.

"If that money had been spent on prevention of rape the woman would be better off, the community would be better off," Nolan noted. "There's a tremendous societal cost. And it's a stain on our nation."

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emlybelz.

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