A tolerance of rape

Monday, August 30, 2010

"THIS IS SOMETHING that I think needs to be done, not tomorrow, but yesterday."

Those were the words of Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in March to a House subcommittee on the subject of preventing sexual abuse in prison. Five months have passed since then, and two have passed since the June 23 deadline for Mr. Holder to approve the guidelines set forth by the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission. His "yesterday" is long past.

A report released Thursday by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that the situation remains grim. The bureau estimates that at least 88,500 adults were sexually abused in U.S. prisons and jails in the past year. This number represents 4.4 percent of prison inmates and 3.1 percent of those in jail but fails to include assaults on minors, which a January survey suggested was more than 12 percent -- one in eight. And the statistics fail to portray the human toll of each day that standards are not enacted to prevent sexual assault behind bars.

Kendell Spruce testified that, when he went to jail, "I was 28 years old, I weighed 123 pounds and I was scared to death." The next nine months of prison were a nightmare: He was brutally beaten, raped at knifepoint and sexually victimized by at least 27 inmates. "I went through nine months of torture -- nine months of hell -- that could have been avoided," Mr. Spruce said. In the midst of his ordeal, he discovered that he had become HIV-positive. "I felt ashamed, embarrassed, degraded and humiliated. I haven't forgotten those feelings. You never forget."

Since 95 percent of those behind bars will eventually return to their communities, this is not an isolated problem. Those who suffer sexual assault while incarcerated emerge with lasting traumas that make an already rocky transition to civil life even more difficult, taxing families and support structures.

So what has happened to Mr. Holder's sense of urgency?

The Justice Department insists that it wants to take the time to do this right. But after a point, additional time results in only additional harm. The congressionally mandated National Prison Rape Elimination Commission spent multiple years looking into this issue, listening to expert testimony, examining best practices and producing a limited array of common-sense recommendations. It is difficult to understand why none of these recommendations are in place.

Such standards are badly needed. In the continuation of a prior trend, more prison and jail inmates experienced sexual misconduct by staff -- 2.8 percent and 2.0 percent, respectively -- than inmate-on-inmate sexual assaults -- 2.1 percent and 1.5 percent. That those charged with protecting the safety of men and women behind bars should be the ones to violate their dignity is especially heinous. And without standards, those corrections officers who are doing the right thing and seek to halt or punish this behavior have a far harder task.

We are sympathetic to the challenges of overcrowding and lack of funds that confront corrections facilities. But the commission took these financial straits into account. And some of its recommendations are so basic that the fact that they still have not been implemented is nothing short of a travesty, including taking risk factors into account when deciding where to place inmates and instituting a zero-tolerance policy for rape. During its research, the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission found that the key to reducing the incidence of sexual assault behind bars was committed management. Where this is present, creative solutions can be found and financial challenges overcome. Where it is not, no amount of funding will fix the problem.

The otherwise grim report offered a bright spot: Twenty-eight of the nation's 286 jails and six of its 167 prisons had no reported incidents of sexual victimization. It is possible: Rape is not part of the penalty those behind bars must pay to society. In the time that the Justice Department is wasting in rehashing the commission's work, more incarcerated men, women and juveniles will become victims of sexual assault. They shouldn't have to.

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