April 29, 2012

TENS OF THOUSANDS of men, women and children have been sexually abused behind bars over the past three years while the Obama administration dithered.

The Justice Department was charged with implementing regulations for correctional institutions and detention facilities that would reduce the scourge of sexual violence behind bars. The administration had, by law, until June 2010 to complete the task. That was nearly two years ago.

Congress unanimously approved the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) in 2003 with rare and spectacular bipartisanship. Ideological opposites — Reps. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Sens. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and the late Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) — were lead sponsors. The act created a commission that spent six years studying sexual abuse in correctional facilities and crafting thoughtful proposals to decrease such violence.

The commission was led by Judge Reggie B. Walton of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, a judge known for his tough law-and-order approach. It included representatives from academia and the private corrections industry and prisoner advocates. The panel issued recommendations in the summer of 2009; the Obama administration had a year to craft regulations.

Instead, the Justice Department needlessly duplicated the commission’s work, re-interviewing dozens of individuals and groups whose views the panel had considered. It waited while a private consulting firm analyzed the costs of implementing changes, and it blamed the bureaucratic process for delays. It did not, in other words, move with all deliberate speed to protect those in government custody from a form of brutality that leaves psychological scars that can hamper a person’s reintegration into society. Swift and sure action would have been the appropriate response if the administration had been serious about refuting the vile assumption that sexual abuse is an acceptable byproduct of incarceration.

The administration deserves credit for endorsing some provisions that did not sit well with the corrections industry at large, including a prohibition on cross-gender pat-downs and strip searches of juveniles and the conclusion that PREA covers not just rape but a broader category of sexual abuse. It should apply these policies to federal immigration detention centers. Everyone in custody — regardless of the type of institution — should be able to know that the government is doing everything in its power to ensure humane and safe conditions. And juveniles should enjoy the strongest protections.

Some with direct knowledge of the status of the regulations say they are in the last stages of review by the Office of Management and Budget and could be out within weeks. We certainly hope so.