WASHINGTON – "My name is Marilyn Shirley. I'm a survivor of prison rape," the former inmate said.
Shirley is one of tens of thousands of adults who suffered the traumatic experience of sexual abuse by a prison guard. The Texas woman recalled the nightmare in tears as she joined a broad coalition Tuesday, committed to ending rape in U.S. prisons.
"I have waited a long time for my country to take this problem seriously, she said. "No one ever deserves to be raped."
It has been 10 years since a senior guard violently raped her in his office. She had been serving a four-year sentence on a drug charge and was only six months away from being released when she was attacked in a federal facility at Carlswell in Fort Worth, Texas.
"Rape was not a part of my punishment," she said.
Stories like Shirley's have impelled a diverse group of religious, human rights and political groups to push for the adoption of prison rape elimination standards.
"The fact that people are not safe in our prisons, safe from sexual assault, is really appalling," said Pat Nolan, vice president of Prison Fellowship, at a press briefing Tuesday.
Nolan was joined by representatives from the Southern Baptist Convention, the United Methodist Church, Focus on the Family, American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch and Just Detention International, among others.
"What unites us is a belief that each human being has dignity and they should be safe ... whether out in public or also in the confines of a government facility," he said.
The broad coalition unveiled a joint letter – signed by 35 organizations – addressed to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, urging him to adopt standards to eradicate sexual assault in prisons and to make it a priority.
The standards are mandated by the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act and are designed to guide corrections professionals and hold them accountable. Though they were submitted last summer to the attorney general, the one-year deadline for enacting the standards passed nearly two months ago and the Department of Justice expects to take at least another year to adopt them.
That's "another year in which tens of thousands of inmates are raped because we haven't taken steps to prevent it and that's a scandal," Nolan asserted. "We are gathered here to say that's inexcusable."
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 60,000 prisoners – or one in 20 adult inmates – were sexually assaulted during the previous year. Moreover, some one in every eight juveniles in custody was raped.
Lamenting the magnitude of the problem and the delay to enact the standards, David Keene of the American Conservative Union said the issue is simply not at the top of anybody's agenda.
"People haven't looked at this as a serious problem that needs to be corrected," he stated at the press briefing. "We owe it to ourselves to treat people who are paying the price for their crimes as human beings, not as animals."
The coalition noted that the prevalence of abuse in prisons is a management problem. But Keene also observed that a lack of oversight largely contributes to it as well.
"One thing anybody who's looked at incarceration over time knows ... is that if you give human beings total and complete power over other human beings without oversight, bad things happen," he said.
"They begin to treat the people over whom they have power [as] less than human – 'you're not a person, you're a convict.'"
Churches have been aware of the problem as volunteers and ministers have regularly visited inmates to counsel, educate or provide spiritual guidance.
Bill Mefford, director of Civil and Human Rights with the United Methodist Church's General Board of Church and Society, said thousands and thousands of United Methodists have witnessed firsthand the brokenness of the criminal justice system.
"They're seeing firsthand the violence that oftentimes is evident in the prisons. They're seeing the victims of physical, of sexual assault," he said.
Southern Baptists also knew sexual abuse was taking place in prisons, but they were not aware of the scope of the problem, Barrett Duke told The Christian Post.
The evangelical group has now come to a place where they are recognizing that significant changes have to take place, said Duke, who is part of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
"We just believe this is a basic humanitarian issue," he said. "We believe that it violates the dignity of humanity not only to allow that in prison but then also for those who are aware of it not to do something about it."
Citing a passage from the New Testament book of Matthew, Duke said Christians are called to help inmates.
"Jesus said a hallmark of Christian discipleship is that we would actually help people who are in prison. If folks like Marilyn don't get help from people who claim that they are disciples of Jesus Christ, they have significantly violated the calling that the Lord has put on them," he said.
"Southern Baptists are committed to doing what we need to, to see to it that no one else ever stands here again to tell the story like Marilyn has told us today."
On the Web: http://www.justicefellowship.org/holder-letter