If questioned, the average American would probably know that the Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment for prisoners. And, if questioned, the average American would probably say that rape is cruel under any circumstances. This is a simple concept. But unfortunately, this right is often violated behind prison bars in Michigan and across the country.

I recently discovered a series that The Detroit News ran May 22-25, 2005 called “Sexual Abuse Behind Bars.” It told the horrible stories of female inmates who alleged sexual harassment, abuse and assault from male prison guards. The five-month investigation had shocking results — more than 500 women said they had been abused while in prison.

These women banded together and sued for reparations. On July 15, Gov. Jennifer Granholm approved a settlement of $100 million, stipulating that the settlement didn’t necessarily indicate the guards were guilty. The Attorney General’s office recommended this action, saying that there was a precedent set by at least two other settlements of nearly $60 million.

Though the definition of cruel and unusual punishment — and its application to non-citizens — is often debated, no one would argue that rape should be excluded. While prison isn’t supposed to be a glamorous vacation from society, prisoners shouldn’t have to worry about being violated behind bars.

If this were an isolated incident, it would be tragic enough. But cruel situations like this are occurring surprisingly often. In January, ten female prisoners were awarded $15.5 million in a case involving sexual abuse at the Scott Correctional Facility in Plymouth. This prison has had as many as 50 sexual assault suits pressed against it in the last decade. And that isn’t the only facility in Michigan that has had complaints of sexual abuse.

Problems arise when male guards are assigned to all-female prisons. That’s not to say that all male guards sexually abuse female prisoners, but there have been enough incidents to indicate a real danger in assigning male guards to female prisoners. Those guards are on the wrong side of the bars if they think their behavior is acceptable.

These women have no escape from their tormentors. They often don’t even feel like they have a choice. And as sad as it is, they probably don’t. As prisoners, their lives are controlled by guards. And since the Department of Corrections hasn’t changed its policy, these women have no hope while behind bars.

So why do male guards still work in female wards? How many cases will it take to prompt a change in policy? So far there have been at least 50 cases. And when you consider the fact that each case represents more than one woman, the numbers of assaulted women is astounding.

But the Michigan Department of Corrections has an opportunity to put an end to this. They could allow only female guards in all-female prisons. Other systems have set an example to follow. The Colorado Youthful Offender System has found a solution in assigning only female guards to female inmates and male guards to male inmates. This policy is also mandatory in European Union prisons.

This situation has been allowed to continue for too long. The Department of Corrections can’t naively assume all of its guards maintain proper integrity. After all, it handles the state’s prisoners. Its entire purpose is to keep the residents of Michigan safe. Somehow, I don’t think the rape of female prisoners was supposed to be a part of that mission, and it’s time to set things right.

Erika Mayer is the summer assistant editorial page editor.

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