Pat Nolan, Action Alert—Your Letters Needed to Fight Prison Rape, Justice e-reports, Prison Fellowship, March 2010

It is appalling that prisoners are raped in America’s prisons with great frequency. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) found that 4.5 percent of inmates had been sexually assaulted in the previous 12 months. Even worse, BJS found that among juvenile detainees the rate was almost 12 percent. It is a scandal that people housed in government facilities are not safe from sexual attack.

Some Prisons Successfully Fight Rape

The BJS surveys showed, however, that not all prisons are unsafe. Many prisons have taken steps to reduce opportunities for prisoner rape. I served on the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, which spent several years listening to testimony from many dedicated corrections officials who have made stopping prisoner rape a priority—and done it successfully.

We also heard from victims who told us of the ways in which they were left vulnerable to predators and who were given no assistance in recovering from their rape. And we heard from corrections officials who told us of the practical difficulties they encounter in protecting the inmates in their facilities.

The Commission distilled these real life experiences of what works in fighting prison rape and what doesn’t. From these insights, the Commission proposed standards that will guide prison officials as they work to attain zero tolerance for prison rape as called for in the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA).

We published the proposed standards in order to encourage comments, and based on that feedback, we made many adjustments to ensure that they were able to be implemented effectively. The standards are so helpful to prison administrators and so practical that the states of California and Oregon implemented them immediately.

Tough Standards Needed to Guide Efforts

The next step in the process of approval of the standards is an independent review by the U.S. Attorney General and his adoption of them with any changes he deems appropriate. The standards were sent to Mr. Holder last June, and they await his approval. The PREA statute requires that his review be complete by June of this year.

We know that Mr. Holder has a strong commitment to end prison rape, and he has a complete understanding of the issues involved in the standards. Unfortunately, the Attorney General (AG) is involved in so many complex international and domestic issues that he has not been able to concentrate on ending prison rape, despite his personal commitment to do so.

Because this hasn’t risen to the top of his list, the bureaucracy that always resists changes—particularly changes like the standards which will hold them accountable for results—is “hugging the standards to death.” They aren’t outright opposing them, but they have presented the Attorney General with a timeline and process that will duplicate what the Commission has already done and which will delay the implementation of the standards by at least a year.

Delaying Adoption of the Standards is Unnecessary—and Wrong

Many who originally denied that rapes were occurring in prisons now minimize the problem of prison rape and exaggerate the cost of preventing it. Given that over $68 billion is spent on corrections each year and that just one state’s prison system recently paid $100 million to settle claims of female inmates who were raped by their guards, the expenses of implementing the Commission’s standards is minimal. The $100 million settlement would have paid for a whole lot of prevention. More important, who can put a value on the physical and psychological damage of being forcibly raped and knowing your custodians could have prevented it but didn’t?

The Department of Justice (DOJ) proposes that the AG ignore the statutory deadline in order to undertake an entirely new process of consideration of the standards, with hearings and studies that will cover the same ground that the Commission has already considered.

The statute didn’t authorize the DOJ bureaucracy to develop standards. Congress didn’t trust them to do it, because for years the DOJ had pretended that prison rape was a myth. Instead, Congress created the Commission to develop standards, which were then to be reviewed by the AG. Rather than a review process, the DOJ proposes a complete ab initio development of alternative standards. The DOJ’s plan for consideration of the standards is wrong, and the AG is ill-served by this plan presented to him by bureaucrats.

How you can help

The Attorney General has called for public comments on the Commission’s standards. Please write him and ask him to stop the DOJ foot-dragging and adopt the Commission’s standards at the earliest possible date. We have prepared a sample letter for you. It is merely suggested wording, and you should feel free to put it in your own words. Send your letter to:

The Honorable Eric Holder
Attorney General of the United States
U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20530-0001

This is a matter of critical importance. The BJS studies show that inmates are raped in our prisons every day. We know the standards will be effective at preventing them. Each day that passes without the standards in place means more inmates will suffer the trauma of rape.

Please don’t set this aside to do later. We need you to write to the AG today so that he knows that he has the public support to buck the DOJ bureaucracy and to enact the standards without delay.

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