You won't find many prisons where the subject of rape behind bars is openly discussed, by inmates or staff -- not because it isn't a problem, but because it is. A Bureau of Justice Statistics report estimates that more than 200,000 adult prisoners endured sexual assaults in 2008, roughly one out of twelve.
The average rate of assault in juvenile facilities is even higher -- approximately 17,000 incidents in one year, close to 12 percent of that population.
Those kind of numbers have increasingly captured the attention of lawmakers, criminal justice policy analysts and prison rights advocates. But government moves slowly; it's been eight years since Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which called for developing strategies and standards for dealing with a crime that's rarely discussed or prosecuted. The Justice Department expects to unveil its new national standards some time in 2012.
But prisoner advocacy groups, such as Just Detention International, aren't just waiting patiently for something to happen. And last week, the National Council on Crime and Delinquency announced the launch of the National Resource Center for the Elimination of Prison Rape, a clearinghouse for research and professional training on the issue.
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The online Center will focus on "prevention strategies, improved reporting and detection, investigation, prosecution, and victim-centered responses," according to the NCCD. But its library and webinars will be supplemented by actual field personnel available to provide direct assistance in training and investigations.
That's a big step, and a badly needed one. Dealing with a crime that can be both silent and deadly requires boots on the ground -- and in the yard. For a casebook study in how not to investigate prison rape, see my feature "The Devil's Playground," on the ordeal of Scott Howard, a Colorado inmate who was raped and extorted by a prison gang -- and then labeled a "drama queen" by prison officials.
More from our Follow That Story archive: "Scott Howard: Prison rape survivor's story going international."