The Way to Stop Prison Rape

Eric Holder; drawing by John Springs

As three recent studies by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) show, prisoners are raped with terrible frequency in the United States. We still don’t know exactly how many people are sexually abused behind bars every year, but we do know that the number is much larger than 100,000. And we know that those responsible for this abuse are usually not other inmates, but members of the very corrections staff charged with protecting the people in their custody.

The BJS, which is part of the Department of Justice, found statistically significant variation in the incidence of sexual abuse at the hundreds of different facilities it surveyed. Its study of adult prisons, for example, found that 4.5 percent of prisoners nationwide had been sexually abused at their current facilities in the preceding year; but at seven prisons the rate was above 10 percent. Texas’s Estelle Unit had a rate of 15.7 percent, while in six prisons no inmates reported such abuse.

One of the most pernicious myths about prisoner rape is that it is an inevitable part of life behind bars. This is simply wrong. As the variance in the BJS findings shows, it can be prevented. In well-run facilities across the country it is being prevented—and this shouldn’t be surprising. After all, the government has extraordinary control over the lives of those it locks up. Stopping sexual abuse in detention is a matter of using sound policies and practices, and passing laws that require them.

The Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 (PREA), which charged the BJS with undertaking its surveys, also created a body called the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, whose mandate was to study the problem more qualitatively and devise national standards for its detection, prevention, and response. Doing so proved to be a slow process. The commissioners convened expert committees, made an exhaustive review of available research, held numerous site visits and public hearings, and submitted draft versions of the standards for public comment. At every step they consulted corrections leaders, survivors of sexual assault in detention, researchers, advocates on behalf of prisoners, academics, legal experts, and health care providers. Finally, on June 23, 2009, six years after the passage of PREA, the commission published its recommendations. (Staff and board members from our organization, Just Detention International (JDI), the only US NGO dedicated solely to ending sexual abuse in detention, served on all eight of the expert committees appointed by the commission.)

The commission wrote four distinct sets of standards: one for adult prisons and jails, with an immigration supplement; one for juvenile facilities; one for “lockups,” i.e., temporary holding facilities for people recently arrested or being transferred; and one for “community corrections”—for example, people who are living in post-release halfway houses or are on probation. Its final report describes and explains them all. Reading it, one is repeatedly struck by how straightforward and plainly sensible these recommendations are …

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