Prison Rape: Obama’s Program to Stop It

Jane Evelyn Atwood/Contact Press Images
A female prisoner in solitary confinement who was allegedly sexually abused by guards, Sixth Avenue Jail Annex, Anchorage, Alaska, 1993

The United States has by far the largest prison system in the world. It is so large, in fact, so sprawling and dispersed, so administratively complex, that just how many people we keep locked up is uncertain. The most commonly cited statistic is that we have about 2.3 million inmates. This comes from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), a division of the Justice Department that surveys the national prison system and found that on June 30, 2009, the US had 203,233 federal prisoners, 1,326,547 state prisoners, and 767,620 detainees in local jails.

But then, in addition, more than 80,000 youth are held in juvenile detention facilities on any given day. Before being deported, about 400,000 people a year also pass through our immigration detention system, which is run mostly by the Department of Homeland Security. Hundreds of thousands more are held in halfway houses and police lockups; no one knows the exact number. The Bureau of Indian Affairs oversees jails in Indian Country, and the Department of Defense has its own network of more than sixty detention facilities all over the globe.

The people we imprison are overwhelmingly our most disadvantaged: the poor and the poorly educated, the black and the brown, the mentally ill. Typically, they’re given extraordinarily long sentences compared to prisoners in the European Union, often for infractions that would not warrant incarceration elsewhere. And while they’re imprisoned, appalling numbers of them are subjected to sexual abuse. A new BJS study released in May found that approximately one in ten former state prisoners were sexually abused while serving their most recent sentences. Overall (but accounting only for prisons, jails, and juvenile detention facilities), the Justice Department estimates that more than 209,400 people are sexually abused in US detention every year. This is a national disgrace—especially because prisoner rape is an eminently preventable problem.1

In 2003, however, both chambers of Congress unanimously passed and President Bush signed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which called both for extensive study of sexual abuse in detention and national standards to prevent, detect, and respond to it. The Obama administration has now issued those standards. If they are successful—and we believe they will be, to an extent many people may find surprising—not only will they reduce the incidence of prisoner rape dramatically, they will make American detention facilities better run, more humane, and safer places in general.

The standards have to do with how detention facilities are staffed, and how inmates are supervised and monitored; with how inmates are classified and housed within a facility; with the ways they can report sexual abuse, and how staff must investigate and respond to such reports. Among many other things, they will also affect…

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