The scourge of rape in prisons

Sunday, June 13, 2010

"RAPE IS VIOLENT, destructive, and a crime -- no less so when the victim is incarcerated." These were the opening words of a report delivered to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. last June by the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission. By law, the attorney general was given one year to consider the report's recommendations and issue standards to reduce the scourge of sexual violence in the nation's prisons. The Justice Department is about to miss its June 23 deadline -- and probably by a shamefully wide margin.

The department will not say, but those following this issue closely estimate that the Justice Department is unlikely to take action until the end of this year. At that time, federal prisons will be obligated to adopt whatever standards Justice approves. State and local facilities will not be forced to embrace the measures for another year after that. In the meantime, more prisoners -- including juveniles -- will have been senselessly brutalized.

The department has argued that it has needed the time to assess the costs of implementing the commission's recommendations. The law that gave rise to the prison rape elimination report required that new directives must not "substantially" increase costs. The commission, chaired by respected D.C. federal Judge Reggie B. Walton, took this into account. It trimmed back or eliminated recommendations deemed prohibitively expensive. It tailored recommendations to reflect different facilities' needs. It acknowledged the concerns of prison officials and law enforcement officers in the face of shrinking budgets and logistical challenges. But what it did not do was allow the prospect of any cost increase, the possibility of any difficulty, to derail it from its mission.

The Justice Department has unnecessarily replicated some of the commission's work and lost its sense of urgency. It has forgotten that the presence of sexual violence indicates that a facility lacks basic controls. It has closed its eyes to the obligation to ensure that sexual violence is never tolerated as a collateral consequence of incarceration. It has shut out the fact that those raped in prison are likely one day to be released and asked to rejoin civil society -- a task made that much more difficult by the savagery experienced behind bars. It has, in short, abdicated its responsibility to lead.

Mr. Holder had it right when he told a House subcommittee in March that the government must work diligently to prevent sexual abuse in prison: "This is something that I think needs to be done, not tomorrow, but yesterday." It is bitterly disappointing that he has not done more to make that happen.

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