WASHINGTON (RNS)—Six months before her scheduled release, Marilyn Shirley was raped in 2000 by a guard at the Texas prison where she was serving time for drug charges.
“I am still haunted by the words he whispered in my ear,” Shirley said, recalling how her attacker asked, “Do you think you’re the only one?”
Religious leaders and civil rights advocates say Shirley is far from the only one and are pressing the Department of Justice to implement national standards to help prevent an estimated 60,000 cases of prison rape each year.
“What we are witnessing is justice denied,” said Tim Goeglein, vice president of external relations at Focus on the Family and one of the signers of a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder.
Focus on the Family officials worry the scars of rape could persist once prisoners return home.
Other signers included representatives from the Southern Baptist Convention, the National Association of Evangelicals, Sojourners, as well as the United Methodist Church, United Church of Christ, American Civil Liberties Union and the National Immigrant Justice Center.
The standards, proposed last year, would subject correctional facilities to audits and establish a protocol for handling rape in their facilities. According to the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act, they were supposed to be enacted by Holder by June of this year.
The standards already have been adopted by California and Oregon without significant additional costs, according to Pat Nolan, vice president of Prison Fellowship.
Many of the same groups who are pushing Holder now worked to pass the act, which called for better data on prison rapes and established the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, an independent overseeing body.
Department of Justice spokeswoman Hannah August said the department is working diligently and plans to send the approved standards to the Office of Management and Budget this fall.
Holder explained the delay in a March letter to the House Appropriations Committee. “We want to make sure that we get this right,” he wrote, acknowledging that it was an urgent issue.
“This is something that I think needs to be done, not tomorrow, but yesterday.”