Seven years after Congress passed legislation mandating new federal standards to prevent prison rape and several months after the official deadline for issuing standards, Eric Holder’s Department of Justice finally came out with new national standards earlier this week. Sadly, they aren’t very good.
By all accounts, sexual abuse happens in detention with alarming frequency. While the abuse takes all sorts of forms—guards often prey on juvenile inmates and incarcerated women attack one another—most jailhouse sexual assaults involve male inmates raping other male inmates. Although this, mystifyingly, remains a legitimate topic for late night talk show hosts and stand up comedians, it’s a deadly serious problem that the country has ignored for too long. By some measures, the two million or so Americans in prison and jail may suffer more sexual assaults than the more than 300 million people in the world at large.
Holder’s guidelines, although a bit better than nothing, ignore many of the key recommendations of a blue-ribbon panel that produced an advisory report on sexual abuse behind bars. For example, they will gut requirements that prisons perform audits on sexual abuse and significantly limit the ability of opposite-gender guards to view naked inmates following searches. These things will cost money, of course, but a Booz-Allan-Hamilton report that DOJ itself commissioned found that the costs would be exceedingly modest and virtually invisible in some settings. In any case, the costs of inaction—more powerful racial/ethnic supremacist gangs within prisons, billions of dollars (quite possibly) in inmate mental health bills—far exceed whatever corrections departments might have to spend to enforce truly tough anti-sexual abuse standards.
Nearly everyone in prison has done something horribly wrong. But inmates still do possess fundamental human rights. Weak standards like those Holder has proposed simply won’t fix the nation’s most ignored crime problem.