JDI IN THE NEWS - 2011

How committed is Justice Dept. to ending rape behind bars?

By Editorial, Published: November 25

THIS MUCH IS welcome: The long and inexplicably arduous process of crafting regulations to reduce rape and sexual abuse behind bars is finally nearing completion. But questions remain about whether the reforms proposed by the Obama administration will suffice to shield incarcerated men, women and children from this particular brand of brutality.

The Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 (PREA) was, especially by today's standards, a remarkable bipartisan effort. Ideological opposites Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.) joined in the House, as did Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) in the Senate, to sponsor a bill that rejected the notion that sexual abuse is an unavoidable byproduct of incarceration. Lawmakers from both chambers unanimously recognized that such abuse is an unacceptable lapse in institutional order that scars its victims for years and undermines their chances of reintegrating into society.

A commission established by Congress took six years to study the matter, and in 2009 it issued compelling and thorough recommendations. Unfortunately, the Justice Department duplicated much of the panel's work, which delayed the crafting of regulations. The department missed the June 2010 deadline by which new rules were to be implemented; it is now poised to deliver proposed regulations to the Office of Management and Budget, which has roughly 90 days to review the recommendations before they become final.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has embraced a number of important reforms, including some that have been opposed by the corrections industry. These include: a zero-tolerance policy for rape and sexual abuse behind bars; a prohibition on cross-gender pat-downs and strip searches of juveniles; background checks for corrections officers to ferret out past incidents of inmate abuse; a requirement that every corrections facility designate an on-site PREA coordinator; and the conclusion that PREA covers not just rape but a broader category of sexual abuse, as well.

But Mr. Holder and the department have been reluctant to take steps that would ensure the spirit, as well as the letter, of PREA is faithfully followed. For example, the department should mandate that cross-gender pat-downs and strip searches of adults, as well as cross-gender observation of inmates in bathroom facilities, are used only when necessary. Correctional facilities should be required to keep tabs on sexual assaults and how they are dealt with, but they should not be permitted to exclusively police themselves; they should be subject to outside audits. Mr. Holder also should recommend that immigration detention centers be covered by the regulations; everyone in government custody -- regardless of the type of institution -- should be protected against rape and sexual abuse.

Once these resolutions are enacted, it will likely be years before the Justice Department revisits them, making much more important that whatever it submits is as comprehensive and strong as possible.