Prison Rape: Time For DOJ To Act

According to statistics from the federal Bureau of Justice, more than 100,000 prisoners are raped each year while in custody. The predators are, more often than not, prison guards. As many as 4.5 percent of all detainees complained of sexual harassment behind bars last year.

In 2003, Congress commissioned a study of prison rape and what to do about it. The Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 called for creation of a body called the National Prison Rape Elimination Coalition. It took six years, but last June, the commission finally issued its report. It now sits on the desk of Attorney General Eric Holder.

First, the good news: Prison rape is not inevitable. The commission reports that in well run, accountable and transparent institutions, rape has all but been eliminated. What is required is an institutional commitment to zero tolerance of rape. That includes a written policy notifying all of their rights and responsibilities. It also includes requiring all employees and volunteers to report any suspicious activity. The commission calls for national standards with audits of compliance of each institution every three years.

It also requires identifying and managing risk factors: Those prisoners particularly at risk include the age and physical size of the prisoner, as well as whether the prisoner is entering prison for the first time.

The recommendations and report generated by the Commission were reported to the Bureau of Justice, an arm of the Justice Department. Attorney General Holder is now responsible for promulgating standards.

Prison officials are pushing Holder not to adopt the regulations. They fear a loss of control of their institutions, and that new standards and the transparency required to enforce them will make their jobs more difficult. Such fear are misplaced.

"Sexual abuse in detention is a human rights crisis in this country. Reform is urgent, and the commission makes clear how to achieve it," write David Kaiser and Lovisa Stannow in the most recent edition of The New York Review of Books. (March 25, 2010, "How to Stop Prison Rape".)

Holder has until June 23, 2010 to review, amend and promulgate regulations that will become the new standard for the nation's federal prisons. Prison officials are trying to force delay. Holder should be urged to forge on.

Prisoners too often report being intimidated and terrorized by guards. "Remember if you tell anyone one anything, you'll have to look over your shoulder for the rest of your life," one prisoner was told recently.

Will this prisoner run the gauntlet of administrative exhaustion now required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act? This law requires prisoners to exhaust such internal prison administrative procedures as are available before turning to the federal courts for relief. But the acts real accomplishment is to silence prisoners by forcing them smack into the jaws of the fox at the cell door. Those prisoners who are courageous enough to bring a claim to the federal courts face hostile juries, niggardly fee awards for counsel, and the the various immunities judges have created to protect the powerful. Why does the right never bellow when "judicial activism" yields immunity from suit?

Prison rape can be eliminated. What is lacking, apparently, is the will to do what is necessary by at least some prison administrators. Let's hope Mr. Holder's commitment to justice for all does not end at the prison door.

It is not impossible to stop prison rape. That is the conclusion of a

The most recent edition of The New York Review of Books


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