FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Ending Prison Rape

Progress toward ending prison rape has been excruciatingly slow.

Over 30 years ago, activist Russell Smith founded People Organized to Stop Rape of Imprisoned Persons, which later, under the leadership of Stephen Donaldson, became the organization Stop Prisoner Rape. Donaldson, who had been gang-raped in the 1970s when he was jailed for protesting the Vietnam War, was a tireless campaigner on behalf of abused prisoners.  His courage in recounting his own story of victimization brought unprecedented media attention to the subject.

In the 1980s and 1990s, several academic studies were published documenting high rates of both prisoner-on-prisoner sexual assault and staff-on-prisoner abuse.  As the empirical research mounted, evidence of unaddressed rape in prison could no longer be dismissed as anecdotal.

Human Rights Watch published a landmark report on prison rape in 2001 that received front-page coverage in The New York Times. Titled “No Escape,” it was based on firsthand testimony from over 200 prisoners, as well as a state-by-state survey of prison authorities, and it led both The New York Times and The Washington Post to run editorials calling for reform.  Congressman Frank R. Wolf quoted from the report during testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

It was in 2003 that reform efforts seemed finally to come to fruition.  The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), sponsored by a bipartisan congressional coalition, was passed unanimously by both the House and Senate.  When President George W. Bush signed the bill, on September 4, 2003, anti-rape advocates believed that an important milestone had been passed.

Rape Prevention Standards, Finally

Fast-forward six years.  After holding public hearings, collecting numerous testimonies, and undertaking extensive research, the commission established under PREA proposed a set of national standards to eliminate sexual abuse in prison.  Although the standards were both feasible and fair, the Justice Department, granted final responsibility for the law’s implementation, failed to adopt them.  Instead, it spent more than two years doing additional research, rewriting the proposed standards, and then revising its own draft.

Last Thursday—nearly nine years after PREA’s passage—the Justice Department finally issued national standards on prison rape.  The new standards are not perfect, but, as Attorney General Eric Holder said in a press release that was issued along with them, they “represent a critical step forward.”

The new standards focus on preventing, detecting, and responding to the sexual abuse of prisoners.  They require prisons, jails, and other detention facilities to maintain a zero-tolerance policy toward sexual abuse, which includes screening prisoners for the risk of abuse, using the resulting information to inform decisions about housing and programs, and training correctional staff regarding their responsibility to prevent, recognize, and respond to sexual abuse.

The new standards also require facilities to make prisoners aware of how to report sexual abuse, and to develop policies to ensure that prisoners who report abuse do not face retaliation.

Importantly, the standards mandate that facilities provide timely medical and mental- health care to victims of sexual abuse, and establish protocols for preserving evidence after incidents of abuse.  They also ensure that facilities will maintain records of abuse and use those records to inform future prevention efforts.

The standards are immediately binding in all federal prison facilities.  While they are not mandatory in state prisons and jails, states that do not implement them will lose a portion of their federal funding.

Real Progress, Hopefully

A new report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, released the same day as the federal prison standards, underscores why the standards are so important.  Based on a 2008 survey of 17,738 former state prisoners, the report said that one in ten prisoners had described at least one incident of sexual abuse while incarcerated.  The report also found that more than a quarter of victims of prisoner-on-prisoner abuse had been physically injured, and approximately 46 percent had been victimized by more than one perpetrator.

Rates of victimization were especially high for gay and bisexual prisoners: over a third of them had suffered sexual abuse while incarcerated.

These statistics are profoundly disturbing.  While the poor conditions that prevail in U.S. prisons and jails undercut the promise of rehabilitation, the likelihood of rape makes a mockery of the idea.  It is long past time for prisoners to be able to serve their time behind bars without fear of sexual abuse.

The elimination of prison rape, the stated purpose of the 2003 law, is a worthy and necessary goal. If the Justice Department’s new standards bring the country substantially closer to reaching that goal, they may even be worth the wait.

Joanne Mariner is the director of Hunter College’s Human Rights Program.  She is an expert on human rights, counterterrorism, and international humanitarian law. She is the author of the Human Rights Watch report, No Escape: Male Rape in U.S. Prisons

This column previously appeared on Justia’s Verdict.

More articles by:

JOANNE MARINER is a human rights lawyer living in New York and Paris.

September 25, 2018
Kenneth Surin
Fact-Finding Labour’s “Anti-Semitism” Crisis
Charles Pierson
Destroying Yemen as Humanely as Possible
James Rothenberg
Why Not Socialism?
Patrick Cockburn
How Putin Came Out on Top in Syria
John Grant
“Awesome Uncontrollable Male Passion” Meets Its Match
Guy Horton
Burma: Complicity With Evil?
Steve Stallone
Jujitsu Comms
William Blum
Bombing Libya: the Origins of Europe’s Immigration Crisis
John Feffer
There’s a New Crash Coming
Martha Pskowski
“The Emergency Isn’t Over”: the Homeless Commemorate a Year Since the Mexico City Earthquake
Fred Baumgarten
Ten Ways of Looking at Civility
Dean Baker
The Great Financial Crisis: Bernanke and the Bubble
Binoy Kampmark
Parasitic and Irrelevant: The University Vice Chancellor
September 24, 2018
Jonathan Cook
Hiding in Plain Sight: Why We Cannot See the System Destroying Us
Gary Leupp
All the Good News (Ignored by the Trump-Obsessed Media)
Robert Fisk
I Don’t See How a Palestinian State Can Ever Happen
Barry Brown
Pot as Political Speech
Lara Merling
Puerto Rico’s Colonial Legacy and Its Continuing Economic Troubles
Patrick Cockburn
Iraq’s Prime Ministers Come and Go, But the Stalemate Remains
William Blum
The New Iraq WMD: Russian Interference in US Elections
Julian Vigo
The UK’s Snoopers’ Charter Has Been Dealt a Serious Blow
Joseph Matten
Why Did Global Economic Performance Deteriorate in the 1970s?
Zhivko Illeieff
The Millennial Label: Distinguishing Facts from Fiction
Thomas Hon Wing Polin – Gerry Brown
Xinjiang : The New Great Game
Binoy Kampmark
Casting Kavanaugh: The Trump Supreme Court Drama
Max Wilbert
Blue Angels: the Naked Face of Empire
Weekend Edition
September 21, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond
Hurricane Florence and 9.7 Million Pigs
Andrew Levine
Israel’s Anti-Semitism Smear Campaign
Paul Street
Laquan McDonald is Being Tried for His Own Racist Murder
Brad Evans
What Does It Mean to Celebrate International Peace Day?
Nick Pemberton
With or Without Kavanaugh, The United States Is Anti-Choice
Jim Kavanagh
“Taxpayer Money” Threatens Medicare-for-All (And Every Other Social Program)
Jonathan Cook
Palestine: The Testbed for Trump’s Plan to Tear up the Rules-Based International Order
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: the Chickenhawks Have Finally Come Back Home to Roost!
David Rosen
As the Capitalist World Turns: From Empire to Imperialism to Globalization?
Jonah Raskin
Green Capitalism Rears Its Head at Global Climate Action Summit
James Munson
On Climate, the Centrists are the Deplorables
Robert Hunziker
Is Paris 2015 Already Underwater?
Arshad Khan
Will There Ever be Justice for Rohingya Muslims?
Jill Richardson
Why Women Don’t Report Sexual Assault
Dave Clennon
A Victory for Historical Accuracy and the Peace Movement: Not One Emmy for Ken Burns and “The Vietnam War”
W. T. Whitney
US Harasses Cuba Amid Mysterious Circumstances
Nathan Kalman-Lamb
Things That Make Sports Fans Uncomfortable
George Capaccio
Iran: “Snapping Back” Sanctions and the Threat of War
Kenneth Surin
Brexit is Coming, But Which Will It Be?
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail