ON HIS last day in prison Scott Howard was sexually assaulted by his cellmate, a gang member who had assaulted him before. He explained this to the guard escorting him to his cell; she was indifferent. So, according to Mr Howard, were other guards. He was labelled a “drama queen”. Eventually he settled a lawsuit against members of the state’s corrections department, but during three years in Colorado’s prison system Mr Howard was repeatedly raped, sexually assaulted and forced into prostitution. In the time he served in federal and state prisons in Wisconsin, Florida and Texas he said he had no such problems.
Sexual abuse in prison is distressingly common: the Justice Department estimated that more than 217,000 prisoners, including at least 17,000 juveniles, were raped or sexually abused in America in 2008. A total of 12% of juvenile detainees, 4.4% of prison inmates and 3.1% of jail inmates (in American terminology, prisons hold long-term convicts; jails hold people awaiting trial or serving short sentences) surveyed between 2008 and 2009 reported being forced into sex. And that is the number of people, not incidents; most victims are abused more than once. More inmates reported being abused by staff than by other inmates. Sex between guards and inmates is illegal in all 50 states.
But the abuse is not evenly distributed. At some facilities more than 10% of inmates reported being abused by inmates or staff; at others none did, which, like Mr Howard’s experience, shows that while sexual abuse may happen often, it is not inevitable. Lovisa Stannow, who heads an advocacy group called Just Detention International, says that ending it requires three things: better prison management, sound policy and political will. The latter has been sadly lacking.
It is not hard to see why: stopping rape in prison has little political upside, and the glacial pace of federal efforts to stop it reflects this. In 2003 Congress unanimously passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which required the collection of data on sexual abuse in prison, and the creation of a commission to recommend national ways to prevent it. The commission’s recommendations were sensible: make data on sexual assaults behind bars public; improve staff training, supervision and protection for vulnerable detainees; limit cross-gender searches and supervision, particularly when prisoners are undressed; and make it easier and safer for prisoners to report abuse.
PREA required the Justice Department to issue standards--which would be binding on federal prisons and which states and localities would have to adopt or lose federal funding--based on the commission’s recommendation within 12 months. It did not. It now hopes to have standards in place by the end of this year, which would be two-and-a-half years since the commission made its report, and fully eight years since PREA passed. And while it has adopted most of the commission’s recommendations, it exempts detention facilities for illegal immigrants, which PREA covered but which are not governed by the Justice Department. It also sets a shorter time limit for filing grievances, and requires less external oversight than hoped for. But at least the standards will be there--eventually, perhaps. In 2008, on average, almost 600 incarcerated Americans were sexually abused each day. The Justice Department’s sloth comes at a high cost.