Making Prisons Safer, The New York Times, September 9, 2010
Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. has spent nearly 15 months weighing new mandatory rape prevention policies for federal prisons and state correctional institutions that receive federal money. The policies, which are due this fall, need to be as tough as possible.
A recent report from the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics makes that clear, suggesting yet again that sexual violence is frighteningly commonplace in the nation’s prisons and jails.
Based on a survey of more than 80,000 inmates at more than 450 facilities, it found that 4.4 percent of prison inmates and 3.1 percent of jail inmates reported being sexually assaulted one or more times. The bureau estimates that, nationally, 88,500 prison and jail inmates experienced some form of sexual victimization in the previous 12 months. The survey did not include follow-up investigations to determine the veracity of the inmates’ claims. But rape victims in prison are often hesitant to report their assaults out of shame or fear of reprisal, and these numbers may actually underestimate the problem.
The report’s finding that some prisons have far higher rates of victimization than others are consistent with the findings of the Congressionally mandated National Prison Rape Elimination Commission. It studied this problem extensively and found that some prisons promoted a climate of safety while others implicitly tolerated abuse.
The commission came up with a strong set of prevention recommendations. These included better screening and training for guards, better medical and psychiatric care for assault victims, better protection for the most vulnerable inmates and the creation of a system that allows victims to report rape without risk of reprisal. Mr. Holder received the commission’s recommendations in June last year and then put them out for public comment, raising fears that state and local corrections officials would water them down. Mr. Holder needs to ensure that doesn’t happen.