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Each Day, More Victims

Amy Fettig,
Deputy Director,
National Prison Project
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August 26, 2010

Sexual abuse behind bars in this country is rampant. Today, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) issued a report finding that a staggering 64,500 people in federal and state prisons reported being raped or sexually abused in the last year. The report further found that an additional 24,000 jail detainees were sexually abused during that same period. And in juvenile facilities, the problem is even worse: according to a recent government study, almost 15 percent of youth reported being sexually abused in the preceding year.

These numbers reflect a national tragedy. Every day, hundreds of adults and children are sexually assaulted in our prisons, jails, and youth detention centers. Rape and abuse were not part of their sentence. Yet the violence continues. And government officials allow it to continue, even though they have the tools to prevent it right now.

The problem of sexual abuse in prison and the urgent need to address it has been recognized for years. In 2003, Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) aimed at confronting the scourge of sexual abuse in our prisons, jails and youth detention centers. PREA established a bipartisan commission to study the problem of prison rape and recommend national standards to prevent, detect, respond to and monitor the problem. That commission held dozens of public hearings and heard from the full range of stakeholders, including prisoners, corrections officials, prison rape survivors, doctors, law enforcement specialists, advocates and legal experts. After nearly five years and two public comment periods, the commission submitted its recommended national standards to Attorney General Eric Holder last year.

Under the law, Attorney General Holder had a year to issue final standards. That deadline was June 23, 2010. But he missed it. In the 64 days since the attorney general failed to meet his deadline, thousands of adults and kids have been subjected to sexual abuse behind bars. It now seems that no final standards will be released before 2011. Meanwhile, the number of victims continues to grow. And the human costs are incalculable.

The national standards sitting on the attorney general’s desk are strong and effective. Once they are fully implemented, child and adult prisoners will be safer, and American prisons, jails and detention centers will be more humane and professional institutions. There simply is no excuse for bureaucratic foot-dragging here. Every day of delay means more crimes committed with impunity and more lives shattered, perhaps beyond repair. This is a problem that demands action now.

Earlier this month, the ACLU joined forces with a broad coalition of groups from across the political spectrum to call on the attorney general to implement the national PREA standards without further delay. Although these groups are very diverse and often disagree on other issues, we stand united in our belief that the PREA standards provide a critical and necessary tool for protecting important constitutional and human rights. Fundamental American values are at stake here. The attorney general should take note and act now.