In the next few weeks, Attorney General Eric Holder and his staff are going to have to spend some time working on a topic that they would almost certainly rather avoid: prison rape. Under a 2003 law—the Prison Rape Elimination Act—the Justice Department has to issue standards soon to reduce (and ideally eliminate) sexual abuse behind bars. As much as it may turn some people’s stomachs, the problem is serious and tough action will be needed to combat it.
Here are the facts: around 2 million people are in prison or jail in the United States and experts estimate over a million people have been sexually assaulted behind bars over the last two decades. Given that many inmates are assaulted on multiple occasions (even daily), the absolute number of sexual assaults committed behind bars may exceed the number committed everywhere else in the country put together.
The bulk of sexual violence behind bars involves male prisoners attacking other male prisoners but female inmates also attack other female inmates and corrections officers sometimes prey on the people in their custody.
Although no corrections professional publically condones any of this, inmate-on-inmate sexual violence has some benefits from the standpoint of some prison administrators: The fear of sexual assault helps racial supremacist gangs keep potential rivals in line and, as such, keeps the peace between factions within prisons. Likewise, the casual attitude with which society as a whole treats prison rape—how many other serious crimes are valid topics for comic monologues?—has made it difficult to bring the topic the attention it deserves. The 2003 bill slogged its way through Congress even though it eventually passed both houses without a single dissenting vote.
The standards proposed by the Commission the 2003 law set up are mostly commonsense: zero tolerance for inmate rape and careful monitoring of inmates. Now, the federal government simply has to implement them. And, against this background, some corrections professionals are proposing efforts to narrow the definition of “sexual assault” (as if some sexual assaults are actually okay), and preserve “states rights” in running prisons.
Although few of the people opposing tougher standards have bad intentions, the entire debate is ridiculous. If any type of sexual assault is taken less seriously, it can easily lead to more serious ones in the future; a broad definition makes sense. Likewise, there’s no place for “states rights” given the gravity of the situation and seriousness of the contact: if a state government can’t stop people in its custody from being raped, then what exactly is it competent to do?
Tough standards are needed to combat prisoner rape. Attorney General Holder and his Department need to impose them.