Prison Rape Elimination Act Becomes Federal Law

September 4, 2003

SPR Hails Historic Move Toward Safer, More Humane Detention

WASHINGTON D.C. - President George W. Bush signed into law the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 today, marking the first time the U.S. government has ever passed a law to deal with sexual assault behind bars.

"The passage of this law is a major milestone, finally bringing prisoner rape out of the shadows," said Lara Stemple, executive director of Stop Prisoner Rape (SPR), a national human rights organization that has worked on the issue for more than two decades.

The law calls for the gathering of national statistics about the problem; the development of guidelines for states about how to address prisoner rape; the creation  of a review panel to hold annual hearings; and the provision of grants to states to combat the problem. "We hope this bill will be the beginning of real reform," Stemple said. "And, progress will also require improved mental health services for survivors, lawsuits aimed at reform, and greater sympathy on the part of  the public."

The president signed the bill this morning at an Oval Office ceremony attended by two survivors of prisoner rape, Tom Cahill and Hope Hernandez. Cahill serves as president of the Board of Directors SPR, and Hope Hernandez is a member of the group's Board of Advisors.

"We know we've come a long way when survivors of prisoner rape are invited to the White House with dignity rather than marginalized and ignored," Stemple said.

In 1968, Cahill was beaten and gang-raped in San Antonio, Texas after being arrested for civil disobedience. Hernandez, also a nonviolent offender, was repeatedly raped by a corrections officer in 1997 in a privately run facility adjacent to the Washington D.C. jail.

One in five men in prison has been sexually abused, often by other inmates. Rates for women, who are most likely to be abused by male staff, reach as high as one in four in some facilities.