IN 2003, Congress unanimously approved the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). The act called for the creation of a commission to study sexual violence in prisons across the country and recommend regulations that would, at the very least, curb its frequency.
The commission delivered proposals on schedule in 2009, but the Obama administration dragged its feet. The Justice Department was supposed to have regulations on the books by 2010, but it didn’t until 2012. Just recently — 10 years after PREA was signed into law — the first audit of a federal prison took place in West Virginia.
Even after legislation was passed to protect them, tens of thousands of inmates have had to endure a decade of violence before correctional facilities would start to shield them from sexual assault and battery.
Certainly, it’s good to see the American Correctional Association (ACA) begin to audit prisons. The ACA serves a number of functions for America’s prisons, from lobbying in Washington to granting certain facilities accreditation. Skeptics, alleging that the ACA is partly responsible for prisons’ failure to address safety concerns, doubt its auditors will be assertive enough in attacking prison rape. The Justice Department must monitor the audit carefully.
Unacceptably, many people have come to accept rape as an inevitable part of the prison experience in this country. In fact, sexual violence during incarceration is lawless brutality that should not be tolerated. This violence can cause indelible psychological damage. If the correctional system is to foster any chance of social reintegration, the blind eye many prisons turn to sexual assault is a direct subversion of that mission.
Among other provisions, federal prisons and facilities that receive federal funding will be encouraged to separate inmates younger than 18 from their adult counterparts. This should be a requirement, not a suggestion. Cross-gender pat-downs in female and juvenile prisons will also be banned.
There are costs associated with some of the new rules, but ignoring them will have a cost too: Prisons that don’t comply could lose up to 5 percent of their funding. A financial incentive can help motivate prisons to tackle the issue, but the real solution lies in initiatives without much of a price tag, such as strong prison leadership and employees trained to care about this issue. Inmates should be able to report violations without fear of retribution, and prison officials should know to listen.