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We Can End Prison Rape

Amy Fettig,
Deputy Director,
National Prison Project
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March 23, 2011

There is a terrible irony in the experience of incarcerated women: the lives of abuse and subordination that frequently brought them to prison are most often replicated behind prison walls. Women’s experience of prison as a place of abuse, violence, psychological deprivation and physical harm is both a human rights tragedy and an indictment of our justice system. Although many aspects of prison life produce tangible harm to women prisoners, their families and ultimately the community, the crisis proportions of sexual violence behind bars demands our immediate attention.

Institutionalized sexual abuse is an all too common experience for incarcerated women in this country. It is a practice well documented by leading human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. The problem is so pervasive that in its recent national survey of prisons and jails, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that 88,500 adult prisoners were sexually abused in their current facility in the past year alone. But despite the acknowledged problems of sexual violence in correctional facilities across the country, the abuse continues largely unabated. This abuse takes the form of rape, but it also includes verbal harassment, improper groping during pat-down searches, improper visual surveillance while women bathe and perform personal hygiene tasks, and “consensual” sex for protection and material exchange.

Although modern prisons have many institutional rules that allegedly govern the conduct of prisoners and guards alike, these rules are often circumvented and selectively enforced, and it is well understood that the word of a correctional officer will almost always trump the allegations of a prisoner. Such an environment inherently breeds abuse, so it is unsurprising that correctional officers can use such threats as bogus disciplinary sanctions that lead to longer prison sentences, the end of visits from children and family, or long stays in solitary confinement, as effective coercion to force women prisoners to comply with demands for sex or silence.

In 2003, Congress took an important first step in addressing this problem by unanimously passing the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which was signed into law by President George W. Bush. PREA called for the development of binding national standards for the prevention, detection, response, and monitoring of sexual violence behind bars. These standards represent the first national effort to hold correctional facilities accountable for abuse while at the same time instituting policies and procedures that will help prevent abuse in the first place. Once finalized, they will be binding on federal facilities immediately, while state and county systems will have one year to come into compliance or risk losing five percent of their federal funding.

Under PREA, a bipartisan National Prison Rape Elimination Commission (NPREC) was established to develop these standards. After five years of intensive study and consultation with experts, victims, advocacy groups, judges, correctional officials, and academics, NPREC submitted its detailed and comprehensive recommendations to Attorney General Eric Holder on June 20, 2009. The law gave the attorney general one year to publish a final rule adopting national standards. The attorney general missed this deadline. Nearly a year later, the standards still aren’t finalized. Instead, in late January of this year, the Attorney General issued proposed revisions to the standards that many groups, including the ACLU, believe represent unconscionable backpedaling from the recommended standards in several critical areas, such as cross-gender searches and viewing; the requirements for filing official complaints of abuse; the exclusion of immigration detainees from the PREA protections; and the potential watering down of the audit and accountability standards designed to monitor implementation of PREA in prisons, jails and juvenile detention centers across the country.

The ACLU and other organizations concerned about the crisis of sexual violence behind bars will submit official, detailed comments to the Department of Justice on April 4. But our central message is clear: The lives of women prisoners can no longer be ignored and discounted while their civil and human rights are violated. We can and must end sexual violence behind bars. We need strong national standards and we need them now!

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