- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The effort to end rape in U.S. prisons and jails has emerged as an unlikely unifier of civil society in recent years. Human rights organizations, faith-based groups, lawmakers from the left and the right, and — increasingly — prison officials have made a commitment to addressing sexual abuse in detention.

The House Judiciary crime subcommittee will hold hearings Wednesday on the reports by the bipartisan National Prison Rape Elimination Commission Report and Standards. That June 23 report released the first-ever binding national standards aimed at preventing and addressing sexual violence behind bars; this modern movement has reason to celebrate.

Rape inflicts terrible harm on victims and creates unsafe prisons for staff and inmates alike. The absence of counseling after an assault causes many prisoner rape survivors to develop long-term problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and alcohol and other drug addictions.

High rates of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases in detention put incarcerated survivors at great risk for infection. Rape behind bars not only shatters the lives of countless people in detention but hurts the rest of us as well. Once released — and 95 percent of inmates do return home — those who have been sexually assaulted bring their emotional trauma and medical conditions back to their communities.


In 2003, President Bush signed into law the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which had been passed unanimously by Congress earlier that year. PREA was the direct result of advocacy by individuals and organizations who had not previously worked together and who rallied the support of legislators as diverse as Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat.

PREA mandates development of national standards addressing prisoner rape, the gathering of nationwide statistics about the problem, the provision of grants to states to combat it, and the creation of a review panel to hold annual public hearings about the best- and worst-performing corrections facilities.

Before PREA, corrections officials asserted that prisoner rape was uncommon and an aberration, not worthy of serious attention nor the dedication of significant resources. Six years later, thanks largely to this legislation, many officials acknowledge that sexual abuse pervades prisons and jails, that this type of violence is preventable and is the result of problems linked directly to prison management. The national standards released last month, mandated by PREA, have the potential to mitigate this crisis.

The new standards call for prison housing decisions to take into account whether an inmate belongs to a population that is particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse (such as being young). They spell out requirements for staff training, inmate education and sexual assault investigations. In addition, they mandate that facilities provide prisoner rape survivors with adequate medical and mental health services. These are key measures; if fully implemented, they will spare countless prisoners the devastation of rape.

The standards represent another victory for the unlikely allies behind PREA. Serving on expert committees and participating in public hearings, corrections officials, prisoner rape survivors, and advocates from the left and the right offered crucial input into the standards. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has one year to encode them as part of federal regulation, something he must do swiftly and without diluting them. Once adopted, the standards will be binding immediately on federal detention facilities. States will have one year to certify their compliance with them or will lose a portion of their federal corrections-related funding.

There are important lessons to be learned from the effort to end prisoner rape. By boiling down the complex and seemingly intractable problem of sexual violence in detention to one essential value — and by setting aside their differences on other issues — organizations with distinct agendas have been able to stimulate serious reform.

In the case of prisoner rape, the compelling moral argument that brought such a diverse set of players together was simple: Prisoner rape is an abomination that offends basic human dignity.

The problem of sexual abuse in detention is deeply rooted and will not go away without a fight. Nevertheless, it is a battle we can win. When the government removes someone’s liberty, it takes on an absolute responsibility to protect that person’s safety. No matter what crime someone might have committed, rape must not be part of the penalty.

Lovisa Stannow is the executive director of Just Detention International (formerly Stop Prisoner Rape), a human rights organization with the mission of ending sexual abuse in all forms of detention.