Sexual Abuse Behind Bars

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

THE men and women charged with ensuring an orderly and safe environment behind bars too often use their positions to sexually abuse prisoners. So concludes a recently released report from the Justice Department Office of Inspector General, which documents a litany of problems that still plague the nation's federal prisons. The report, which comes on the heels of a thorough study by the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, should serve as a catalyst for immediate action.

The Bureau of Prisons operates 115 prisons in 93 locations, housing approximately 171,000 inmates. Allegations of sexual abuse by prison staff more than doubled from 2001 to 2008. "Staff sexual abuse of prisoners has severe consequences for victims, undermines the safety and security of prisons, and in some cases leads to other crimes," the IG's office concluded.

Reports of abuse arose in all but one of the 93 locations and involved male and female employees. Not surprisingly, allegations were made most often against staff who interacted most with inmates -- namely, those in food services, recreation, vocational and educational training.

There were some bright spots. For example, the IG reports that prosecutions of criminal sexual abuse by staff rose by some 12 percentage points due in large part to prosecutors' willingness to tackle such cases after Congress enacted tougher penalties. Of the 90 prosecutions, 83 resulted in convictions or guilty pleas.

But the Bureau of Prisons still needs to articulate a zero-tolerance policy for sexual abuse and better train personnel to prevent, detect and report sexual crimes. Prisoners need information on how to report abuse. The agency should review policies in some prisons that automatically isolate or transfer a prisoner who has reported abuse. Although done with the intention of protecting a prisoner from further abuse, such actions are often perceived as punishment and have the effect of discouraging disclosure.

The U.S. Marshals Service, which transports federal prisoners and holds those arrested on federal charges until disposition of their cases, has no formal program to prevent and handle sexual abuse. This is unacceptable and should be remedied as soon as possible.

Even before the IG's report, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. had in hand a blueprint to address sexual abuse by staff and inmates in federal and state institutions: a thorough and compelling report produced after nearly six years of study by the congressionally created prison rape elimination commission. Mr. Holder has until next June to act on the commission's report. He should not wait until then to begin implementing the commission's sensible -- and necessary -- recommendations.

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