Under no circumstances should prison rape be "distressingly common" or "widespread," yet those are two recent assessments of the problem in Colorado and around the country.
A federal study released Tuesday said that in 2007 alone, an estimated 60,500 rapes occurred in the nation's prisons and jails.
That is a despicably high number, and authorities must make inroads in protecting inmates from such abuse at the hands of other prisoners and corrections staff.
Incarcerated people have the same basic rights to safety that others have and it is the government's duty to protect those in custody, regardless of the crimes they've committed.
The problem came to light here in Colorado in a very public way earlier this month when a female state prison inmate was awarded $1.3 million after having been raped by a guard.
The 2006 case was one of "horrific violence," according to U.S. Court of Appeals Judge David Ebel, who went on to observe that the sexual abuse of inmates "remains distressingly common in Colorado prisons."
The female inmate was coerced by a prison sergeant, Leshawn Terrell, to perform sex acts for five months. When she refused to continue, he raped her.
The woman suffered untreated injuries and bleeding for two years following the rape, and finally, after filing a lawsuit, underwent surgery to address her injuries.
Even more dismaying is the paltry criminal penalty the guard received. The Denver District Attorney allowed Terrell to plead to a misdemeanor offense carrying a 60-day term of imprisonment, as opposed to a felony sex-assault charge.
The DA's office said the victim had credibility issues, accepted the deal and did not want to testify. Furthermore, Terrell is now a registered sex offender.
A 60-day sentence hardly seems just punishment for the injuries and intimidation described in the woman's lawsuit.
The prison rape problem was spelled out on a national scale in a report by the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, which was established by Congress in 2003.
The report recommends that jails and prisons conduct better staff training, improve screening to identify those who are more likely to be victimized, and conduct more internal monitoring via video cameras and oversight boards.
Those all sound like good ideas, but there also needs to be a a fundamental shift in attitudes among those in criminal justice whereby this sort of abuse is not tolerated.
Most prisoners eventually will be released and expected to get jobs and integrate back into communities, which is difficult under the best circumstances. Prisoners who have been sexually assaulted and likely traumatized have an unconscionably heavier burden to bear.