Keith L. Martin, Reviewing the "Prison Rape
Reduction Act", Corrections.com,
November 18, 2002.
The "Prison Rape Reduction Act of 2002," currently before Congress, seeks
to reduce acts of prison rape nationwide through steps that include
analyzing data and providing funds to correctional agencies for prevention
measures. While this legislation is being discussed in Washington D.C.,
the debate continues over how prevalent the problem this is in our
nation's prisons and jails.
"I think overall, the field [of corrections] is doing a poor job in terms
of prevention and dealing with the issue once a sexual assault is
reported," says Lara Stemple,
Executive Director of Stop Prisoner Rape (SRP). "Rape and sexual assault
is a crime in all 50 states - there are some relevant laws everywhere. The
problem is the failure both on the part of the correctional officer to
take these issues seriously and the law enforcement officers to prosecute
crimes against people in prison."
She adds that recent reports indicate that among men, one in 10 have been
raped in prison and one in five have been sexually assaulted, and the
numbers are growing. With female inmates, while they are more likely to be
assaulted by correctional officers than inmates, she says, the numbers
vary greatly by facility. Stemple says estimates range from one in four
women abused in a facility to none - proof that with the right prevention
measures, changes can be made.
"It is clear that
every professional in the business [of corrections] feels [the importance
of this issue] and takes a professional responsibility to protect inmates
- everybody gets that," says Martin
Horn, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Probation
and former Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.
Horn also says that any thoughtful analysis of most correctional policies
would indicate that agencies have procedures and training in place that
address prisoner rape. Therefore, corrections has the issue well under
control without the need for national legislation to dictate actions, he
While Stemple says
that there are some
correctional agencies that do have effective prevention mechanisms in
place, often they are ignored if it is staff who are the ones conducting
these acts. With this in mind, outside intervention is needed.
"In the same way we hear about police departments having a 'wall of
silence,' there is a culture of officers [in corrections] protecting their
own when one of their own is accused," she says. "We've heard from
prisoners that literally hear cries and screams in the night for help, but
officers will do nothing. There is, in many parts of the country, a
culture of ignoring [this] serious human rights abuse. It has risen to the
level where something else has to be done."
Making a Nationwide Statement
In June, the "Prison Rape Reduction Act" was introduced by Senators Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and by
Congressmen Bobby Scott (D-Va.)
and Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.).
The bipartisan bill calls for a number of measures, including yearly
analysis to be conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) to
gather information from correctional agencies nationwide on the prevalence
of prison rape. To assist in this analysis, a three-member "Review Panel
on Prison Rape" would be established to hold public hearings on the
In addition, the legislation establishes the "National Prison Rape
Reduction Commission," a nine-member panel of individuals chosen by the
President and members of Congress. The commission's goals are to also
thoroughly gather information on the problem of prison rape, analyze this
data and then produce national standards for every prison and jail to
"We think this is a step in the right direction which takes strong
measures to remedy the problem," says Stemple. "Sexual assault occurs
everywhere around the world and probably will continue to, but the key is
to make it as unlikely as possible and when it does occur, [take it
While Horn agrees that more analysis needs to be done to get a pulse on
the problem of prison rape, the responsibility to act should be on the
field of corrections, not legislators. The solution to this issue, he
says, will ultimately rest and will require correctional administrators,
managers and all corrections professionals to address prison rape on a
state and county level.
The "Prison Rape Reduction Act," he adds, is a reaction to an environment
that simply does not exist.
"You could call this the 'Oz Bill' [after the television show]," says
Horn. "It portrays prisons in a totally unreal way and that program
defines the public's perception of [prison] and that's unfortunate. The
bill is a reaction to that, feeds on it and [is a] sad basis to make
He adds that the legislation also excludes two key correctional
organizations - the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and the National
Institute of Corrections (NIC).
"It leaves them out and presupposes an outcome without research," he says.
"It fails to take advantage of the expertise that [these agencies] come to
bear in respect to the problem. It's interesting that they don't provide
funds to the NIJ to examine the frequency [of prison rape] or funds to the
NIC to train or provide best practices. [Legislators] could do [this] if
they were serious."
Putting Federal Funding at Stake
Among the opposition from corrections professionals such as Horn are
provisions in the legislation that punish an agency's non-compliance by
reducing federal funds.
For example, the Review Panel on Prison Rape can request the public
testimony of federal, state and/or local officials for their public
hearings. If a request is made for a correctional employee to testify and
that individual fails to do so, that agency's federal funding through the
bill will be reduced by 20 percent and reallocated to another
Federal funds are also subject to reduction if an agency fails to adopt
the national standards set forth by the National Prison Rape Reduction
Commission. Another 20 percent will be lost if the states do not adhere to
"The intent of the bill is to create incentive by threatening funding -
that really is a bludgeon," says Horn. "It's really a very gross response
to a far more subtle problem."
For Stemple, it is important for legislation like this "to have teeth,"
because the proposed standards aren't effective unless they are enforced.
Also, she adds, states can opt out of the national standards - and in turn
lose federal funding - but in the long run, the states must take on the
issue of prison rape.
"We hope states are too embarrassed to opt out [of the standards] and
address the problem - they can't be silent," she says.
Joe Wheedon, Legislative
Liaison for the American Correctional Association (ACA), says the
organization is watching the bill's progress closely and while they are
not actively supporting the bill, they do support the concept behind it.
Part of this stance comes from the organization's opposition to provisions
in the bill that withhold federal funding from agencies.
"If one [corrections professional] refuses to speak to the committee, the
state entity could lose funds and there is some concern that local
correctional entities do not have the authority to compel an employee to
testify," says Wheedon. "That would mean the state or system would not
receive funding, but could do nothing to mandate that employee testifies -
there is a loophole in the language [of the bill]."
The bill does have its supporters, however, including Human Rights Watch,
the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Prison
Pat Nolan, President of
Justice Fellowship - the public policy arm of Prison Fellowship Ministries
- says that this legislation is "the most thoroughly reasonable proposal
to a serious problem like prison rape." In his opinion, if the panel calls
forward corrections professionals, it will be for a reason.
"The only agencies invited to testify are those [that are] performing at a
substantially lower degree to address the problem versus other states,"
says Nolan. "They are not being held to any higher standards. If they are
performing poorly, it is important that legislators hear why - it's only
Horn counters that if the ability to identify these agencies exists, then
why not have the Attorney General simply take action against them.
"If we could demonstrate [that rape is occurring] and it is widespread and
frequent in a particular jurisdiction, that is grounds for the Attorney
General to take action on his own [in the form of the] Civil Rights of
Institutionalized Persons Act or Section 1983 [civil action for
deprivation of rights]," he says.
Public Hearings or Public Attacks on Corrections?
Wheedon adds that another provision the ACA is leery about are the public
hearings held by the Review Panel on Prison Rape. The concern is that
these sessions to ferret information on the issue of prison rape will be
forums for attacks on correctional systems in general.
As a former legislator in the California State Assembly for 15 years,
Nolan says that these occurrences would not serve the purpose of
proponents of the bill and in fact, would distract from the legislation's
"If [you are a] legislator, you want to call attention to the problem," he
says. "If it turns into a 'legislative circus,' your story does not get
out and that would not be an effective way to handle [an issue like
Furthermore, says Nolan, suing corrections is not an effective avenue
either. In fact, the American Civil Liberties Union does not support the
bill because they wanted to involve lawsuits, he says. Prison Ministries
Fellowship and other organizations consulted about the bill rejected
involving litigation, thus costing them the support of the ACLU.
"We worked hard in our coalition to not make this a 'bash corrections' or
'let's sue corrections' [bill]," he says. "[Prison rape] won't be stopped
by lawsuits, but by working with corrections to take solid steps to [stop
Nolan adds that by taking steps such as aiding the victims and prosecuting
the predators, corrections can be more effective in reducing incidents of
sexual assault behind bars. The "Prison Rape Reduction Act" sheds light on
the subject so agencies can recognize the problem and take action, he
"Once attention is called to this, systems will quickly address it," he
says. "I've had high-[ranking] correctional officials say 'thank you, our
system wants to deal with [prison rape], but can't [in part because] the
public takes the attitude of this as part of doing time.'"