Te-Ping Chen, Stop Prison Rape? The White House Says "Not Yet", Change.org, Criminal Justice Blog, May 11, 2010
The Obama administration has worked hard to burnish its credentials as a global leader in the fight against sexual violence. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has met with rape victims in the Democratic Republic of Congo and led over 60 nations to push for a UN envoy to focus on the wartime rape of women and children. Meanwhile, the White House has pledged $17 million in funding to support women in conflict-ridden areas of the DRC.
Inspiring stuff. But meanwhile, the White House appears to be forgetting about prison rape in its own backyard — specifically, the 100,000 rapes that occur every year in the prisons across the country that operate under the U.S. flag.
That's a figure that comes from the U.S. Department of Justice — a statistic so staggering that even in a setting as polarized as Capitol Hill, agreement on the need to fight prison rape is unequivocal. Back in 2003, when Congress passed the U.S. Prison Rape Elimination Act, it sailed through both chambers with full affirmation from both sides.
Unfortunately, all this mighty store of good intentions has hit a snag. Last June, a set of proposed standards to deal with the prison rape crisis was issued, and Attorney General Eric Holder was given a year to read them and force prisons across the country to come into compliance. But Holder told Congress back in March that he wouldn't be adhering to that deadline. And despite an outpouring of correspondence to the Justice Department on the issue (the public comments period closed yesterday) — including the over 10,600 Change.org members who signed Just Detention International's petition — Holder's shown no sign that he'llto speed up that review.
Why not? Well, as JDI executive director Lovisa Stannow writes, there are fears that stopping prison rape is...too expensive. After corrections officials started to kick up dust around the Prison Rape Elimination Act, the Justice Department commissioned a study to examine how much it would cost to implement the proposed standards. Note: the study wasn't trying to determine the overall fiscal impact of the proposal — it wasn't, after all, considering the potential savings from the measure, just the implementation costs. But the study's managed to derail the reform process anyway.
If costs are what the administration is worried about, maybe Holder should take a look at the litigation sexual abuse has cost states across the country. Take, for example, the $100 million settlement that Michigan reached with victims of prison rape last year, in a case in which prison officials ignored cases of rape and sexual abuse by staff for years.
Of course, though, cost isn't what rape's about. You don't hear Secretary Clinton talking about cost as she confronts the question of sexual violence in the DRC — no, instead she's talking about banishing sexual violence into "the dark past" and quoting Congolese proverbs, like: "No matter how long the night, the day is sure to come." Sure. But tell that to the 100,000 U.S. women, children and men who have been raped in prison since last June, while the White House has continued to sit on hope for reform.