Spotlight: Ending Prison Rape, U.S. Human Rights Fund Newsletter, January 12, 2010

Prisons across the United States suffer from dangerously high rates of prisoner rape. Over 60,000 cases of sexual abuse were reported in 2007 alone and unreported numbers are believed to be much higher. Those sentenced to incarceration risk being sexually assaulted by other prisoners or guards and, in some cases, contracting HIV/AIDS.

Just Detention International (JDI) began rallying against prisoner rape in the 1980s. Courageous activists drew attention to the issue and secured a victory in 1994, when the U.S. Supreme Court held in Farmer v. Brennan that rape exceeded the penalty included in a prisoner's sentence. But the standard remained low -- only holding prison officials accountable for 'deliberate indifference' towards prisoners.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention against Torture both provided stronger protections for prisoners than the U.S. Constitution or the Supreme Court decision. The U.S. has ratified both international treaties.

A turning point came in 2001, when JDI began using human rights values, strategies, and standards to further advocate for change. Former victims testified before congress and JDI forged important alliances with groups across religious denominations and political parties. Prison officials gradually warmed to the notion of safeguarding prisoners from rape as necessary for human dignity. JDI played an ongoing coordinating and monitoring role.

2003 marked the passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act. The National Prison Rape Elimination Commission - created by the Act -- issued the first national standards for eliminating prisoner rape in 2009. The standards call for staff and inmate training, reporting requirements, investigation protocols, mental health treatment, and strengthening prison security measures. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder will issue final approval of the new standards in 2010.

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