The Criminal Justice System’s Dirty Secret

In June 2005, Marilyn Shirley told the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission about the horror "that night in March 2000." After she had been convicted of a drug charge, she was sent to the Federal Medical Center at Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas, where she served from January 12, 1998 until September 10, 2000. Prior to that night, Shirley, by all accounts, was a model prisoner who took all of the required Bureau of Prisons courses, from substance abuse prevention classes to classes teaching job skills. "I never once had an incident report written against me," Shirley said.


On "that night in March 2000," Shirley's life was changed forever when she was brutally raped by prison guard Michael Miller, a senior officer of the Bureau of Prisons. "I was scared to death that they'd called me because something had happened to my husband, who had heart problems and diabetes, or to my twins…. I could not have been more wrong. I should have feared for my own safety. After entering the officer's station, Miller made a phone call stating that if a Lieutenant heads for the Camp to give him 'the signal.'


"After hanging up the phone, Miller started forcing himself on me, kissing me and groping my breasts. I was pushed into a storeroom. He continued to assault me; the more that I begged and pleaded for him to stop, the more violent he became. He tried to force me to perform oral sex on him. He then threw me against the wall and violently raped me…. I can still remember him whispering in my ear during the rape: 'Do you think you're the only one? Don't even think of telling because it's your word against mine, and you will lose.' Miller also said to me, 'Who do you think they will believe, an inmate or a fine upstanding officer like me'?"


Nearly three years after she was released from prison and had given her statement and testified about the crime, Officer Miller was found guilty of rape and sentenced to 12 years in prison.


Shirley continues to suffer. "I haven't been able to be intimate with my husband of 30 years. I also have paralyzing panic attacks. Sometimes I can't even hold my grandbaby because I'm afraid of having a panic attack and dropping her. I also have awful nightmares and sometimes I wet the bed as a result. My husband has to pull me out of the closet where I go to feel safe. I'm on five different medications for these conditions. I sometimes fear my rapist is going to come after me even though he's in prison. Every day I relive this rape."


Shirley's case is not an aberration. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, prison rape is endured each year by one in every eight juveniles in custody and one in 20 adult inmates, a total of 60,500 victims.


In its Fact Sheet, "Sexual Assault and Misconduct Against Women in Prison," Amnesty International (AI) explained that: "The imbalance of power between inmates and guards involves the use of direct physical force and indirect force based on the prisoner's total dependency on officers for basic necessities and the guards' ability to withhold privileges. Some women are coerced into sex for favors such as extra food or personal hygiene products, or to avoid punishment."


In mid-August, at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, Shirley "joined a bi-partisan coalition of groups to unveil a joint letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder," according to a pre-press conference news release. "Signed by 35 organizations, the letter urged Holder to adopt prison rape elimination standards mandated by 2003 legislation and completed 14 months ago. The attorney general missed the June 2010 deadline to adopt these standards designed to end sexual abuse in prisons, eradicate the long-term harm to survivors, their families and their communities, and ensure safety and justice for the incarcerated, among other goals."


The letter to the attorney general was signed by organizations representing the left, right, and center of the political spectrum, including: Prison Fellowship, Just Detention International, American Civil Liberties Union, Focus on the Family, NAACP, Family Research Council, The Sentencing Project, National Association of Evangelicals, Open Society Policy Center, Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, Human Rights Watch, and the United Methodist Board of Church and Society.


Doug Carlson of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission recently wrote, "This unacceptable prison problem led lawmakers to set partisanship aside in 2003 to pass the Prison Rape Elimination Act. The legislation creates a zero-tolerance standard for sexual assaults in prison by, among other things, creating the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission to develop standards for reform to guide corrections officials in preventing prison rapes and hold them accountable for achieving results." The bill, which "earned unanimous approval by Congress," was signed into law in September 2003 by President Bush.


Seven years have passed and "progress on reform has idled," Carlson pointed out the problem: "Attorney General Eric Holder, the one responsible under the law for carrying out standards and recommendations of the independent commission, has greeted its report with no action. The commission issued the report more than a year ago. The deadline for Holder's action slipped by two months ago. And now Holder's Department of Justice is expected to take another year to adopt the standards. This foot-dragging is cause for concern."


Carlson maintains that, "Basic human rights—food, water, freedom of religion—are non-negotiable. Protection from sexual violence is among them. The longer the delays… to adopt the recommended standards, the longer the list of victims of prison sexual assault. If the Justice Department idles for another year, as it expects, that would mean tens of thousands more men, women, and youth becoming victims of sexual violence while under government control. That is not acceptable."


Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering conservative movements.