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Stopping Sexual Abuse in Prisons

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May 12, 2010

This week the ACLU’s National Prison Project and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Project submitted comments to Attorney General Eric Holder on proposed standards to eliminate the sexual abuse of inmates. While sexual abuse in prisons has long been known to be an endemic problem, until recently it has been widely accepted in our culture as an inevitable fact of prison life — and even as standard material for comedy.

It is, however, no laughing matter. Victims include not only men and women, but incarcerated children and youth. The horrific trauma of sexual abuse in prison is life-altering for the victims, and has a far-reaching effect on our society as a whole by severely compromising the prisoners’ chances for successful re-entry into the community upon their release. Congress specifically recognized these pervasive societal harms when it passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act with wide bipartisan support.

That’s why the ACLU is glad that the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, established in 2003, has developed a strong set of standards that addresses the problems of rape and other forms of sexual abuse in prison. The standards aim to increase training for prison staff in preventing sexual abuse and reporting it when it occurs, provide physical and mental health services for victims, minimize legal obstacles for victims to report abuse and ensure they can do so without fear of retaliation.

The ACLU’s comments urged the attorney general to adopt the standards quickly, with suggested modifications that provide enhanced protection for LGBT inmates, who are at extremely high risk for sexual abuse and are often blamed for their own victimization. These standards are the result of a long dialogue incorporating the input of all stakeholders involved in the issue, including prison officials, corrections professionals, mental health and health care providers and prisoner advocates.

The House Judiciary Committee will be holding an oversight hearing with Attorney General Holder tomorrow morning. Members of the committee should use the opportunity to question Holder about how long it will take the DOJ to finalize these standards and when we can expect implementation.

Sexual abuse in prison is not a joke. It hurts victims and hurts society at large. Those who are serving time in correctional facilities should not have to worry about the horror of being sexually assaulted.

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