New York Times, Better Protecting Prisoners, The Opinion Pages, April 07, 2011
The Justice Department is finalizing new rape-prevention policies that will become mandatory for federal prisons and state correctional institutions that receive federal money. The rules, based on recommendations from a Congressionally mandated commission, would be a major improvement. But the department needs to remedy several weaknesses before it issues final regulations.
Rape and other forms of sexual abuse by fellow inmates or correctional officers are a chronic hazard in prisons, jails and juvenile facilities across the country. According to federal estimates, 200,000 adult prisoners and jail inmates suffered some form of sexual abuse during 2008.
That works out to about 4.4 percent of the prison population and 3.1 percent of the jail population. The numbers are even higher in juvenile institutions, with 12 percent of the total population suffering some form of sexual abuse. Statistics showing that some institutions have higher rates of assault than others are consistent with the finding of the rape commission, which reported that some prisons had successfully created an atmosphere of safety while others tacitly tolerated assaults.
The commission came up with a long and compelling list of rape prevention recommendations, most of which have been adopted by the Justice Department. It is demanding a zero-tolerance approach to rape behind bars and will require better training of staff members, more effective ways to report assaults, more thorough investigations and better medical and psychiatric services for victims. In perhaps the most revolutionary development, prisons would be required to make sexual assault data public so policy makers could get a clear view of how well or how poorly vulnerable inmates were being protected.
Still, there are problems with the Justice Departmentâ€™s approach. The decision to exclude immigration detention centers holding noncitizens goes against the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, which defined a prison as any confinement facility administered by federal, state or local government.
Victims of sexual assault are often too traumatized to immediately speak out. So the provision permitting prisons systems to invalidate most complaints not lodged within 20 days seems arbitrary. Complaints should be taken seriously whenever they are reported. The department has obviously done the right thing by limiting cross-gender strip searches to emergency situations. But it should also set a goal of ending cross-gender pat-down searches.
Finally, the Justice Department needs to adopt the commissionâ€™s call for regularly scheduled, independent audits of prison rape prevention programs. That is the only sure way to know whether they are obeying the law.
A version of this editorial appeared in print on April 7, 2011, on page A26 of the New York edition.