JDI IN THE NEWS - 2010

Cara, Justice Department to Miss Deadline for New Standards to Address Prison Rape, The Curvature Blog, June 15, 2010

I’ve written a fair amount lately about the huge problem of prison rape in the U.S., and even encouraged you to directly contact the Department of Justice regarding new standards to prevent prison rape.

But while we were left with a strict deadline to get our recommendations and comments in, it looks like the Department of Justice isn’t going to meet its deadline to get back to us. At this point, it’s pretty universally agreed that the Justice Department will miss its June 23 deadline to issue new standards to prevent and address prison rape:

The Justice Department’s own studies suggest that more than 60,000 prisoners report sexual assaults each year. Another study found that 12 percent of juveniles in custody fall victim to rape. Too often, guards are the ones committing the crimes.

And yet the Justice Department is likely to miss a deadline this month for issuing standards to help fix the problem.

The proposals on the table are nuts-and-bolts measures — steps like not letting male guards monitor women in the showers; keeping younger, smaller prisoners away from bullies; and providing better training for staff.

Attorney General Eric Holder explained his challenge to Congress this year.

“When I speak to wardens, when I speak to people who run local jails, when I speak to people who run state facilities, they look at me and say, ‘Eric, how are we supposed to do this? How are we supposed to segregate people and build new facilities and do training?’ That is what we are trying to work out.”

State and local prison officials say making the changes could cost more than $1 billion to start — and another $1 billion each year to keep the standards in place.

Of course, the answer to the supposedly burning question isn’t difficult — the federal government needs to give prisons more money to specifically address this problem. Though not up to wardens to address, I think it’s worth pointing out that we’d have lots of money to spend on the issue if we stopped senselessly incarcerating people like non-violent drug offenders. And it’s definitely worth mention that we don’t have a big issue with spending money on prisons to begin with. The prison industrial complex is big, big business — and while $1 billion sure is a lot of money, it’s chump change compared to what we pour into incarcerating people every year. At around a mere 2% of what is being spent already, a whole lot of people — who we insist on locking up against all logic and reason — could be a hell of a lot safer. So what, exactly, is the problem?

In an overall excellent editorial, the Washington Post seems to have something of an idea:

The department has argued that it has needed the time to assess the costs of implementing the commission’s recommendations. The law that gave rise to the prison rape elimination report required that new directives must not “substantially” increase costs. The commission, chaired by respected D.C. federal Judge Reggie B. Walton, took this into account. It trimmed back or eliminated recommendations deemed prohibitively expensive. It tailored recommendations to reflect different facilities’ needs. It acknowledged the concerns of prison officials and law enforcement officers in the face of shrinking budgets and logistical challenges. But what it did not do was allow the prospect of any cost increase, the possibility of any difficulty, to derail it from its mission.

And there’s your problem right there — the conviction that this just isn’t worth our tax dollars.

I’ve written about this problem before. We as a society seem absolutely convinced that it makes sense to lock up people, including non-violent offenders, despite firm and still mounting evidence that it doesn’t keep us much safer or prevent crime, and we remain willing to spend absurd amounts of money to do so. At the same time, we stay absolutely unwilling to spend a tiny bit more money to ensure that the people we force into governmental custody are kept physically safe and ensured their most basic human rights.

This comes from the devaluation of the humanity of those people who are incarcerated. It also comes from the fact that marginalized and routinely dehumanized members of our society are more likely to be imprisoned, especially black men. And it is no coincidence or accident that among those prisoners most likely to be raped are particularly vulnerable populations including (but not limited to) trans women, gay men, non-binary identifying trans* folks, young inmates, and people with disabilities. If our society hardly bats an eye at most of these groups enduring epidemic levels of violence outside of prison, why would we care when we see them as immoral, irredeemable, subhuman lawbreakers? If we’re not willing to protect these same people while they’re in our communities, why would we suddenly become willing once we’ve successfully removed them?

That we’re apparently potentially looking at a full year delay between the deadline for new standards and new standards actually being released is atrocious enough. That prisoners are going to continue being assaulted in the meantime is absolutely unacceptable, and on the Justice Department’s head — every single prison rape committed until standards are released basically bears their endorsement. And that all of this waiting is going to occur, and all of this suffering is going to continue, only to have the standards that will eventually be released almost certainly watered down and severely far from meeting a benchmark of maximum effectiveness is simply unforgivable, and the biggest insult of all.

How we address this issue, or in this case fail to address it, is absolutely indicative of what we value and where our priorities lie. Sadly, it comes as little surprise to see what what we value and prioritize most is apparently in our wallets.



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