Government Takes Aim at Prison Rape

photo by ecpark

From an NPREC press release dated June 23, 2009.

Calling sexual abuse of people in government custody “totally incompatible with American values,” the bipartisan federal National Prison Rape Elimination Commission issued a landmark report dated 6/23/09 on sexual abuse in U.S. correctional and detention facilities, and proposed the first comprehensive blueprint to prevent abuse.

Congress created this panel when it passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003. The law charged the Commissioners with conducting the first comprehensive review of government policies and practices relating to sexual abuse of inmates, and with developing “zero-tolerance” national standards to improve the detection, prevention, reduction and punishment of prison rape.

The statute requires U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to issue mandatory rules informed by the standards developed by the Commission. Those rules, which must be promulgated within a year, will be immediately applicable to the federal Bureau of Prisons. The rules will later become applicable to states, which must comply or risk losing five percent of federal funds allocated for prison purposes.

The issued report is comprehensive and lengthy, but an attached executive summary clearly defines the Commission’s views and findings. Following is an excerpt:

“Rape is violent, destructive and a crime—no less so when the victim is incarcerated. Until recently, however, the public viewed sexual abuse as an inevitable feature of confinement. Even as courts and human rights standards increasingly confirmed that prisoners have the same fundamental rights to safety, dignity and justice as individuals living at liberty in the community, vulnerable men, women and children continued to be sexually victimized by other prisoners and corrections staff. Tolerance of sexual abuse of prisoners in the government’s custody is totally incompatible with American values.

The Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution forbids cruel and unusual punishment—a ban that requires corrections staff to take reasonable steps to protect individuals in their custody from sexual abuse whenever the threat is known or should have been apparent. In Farmer v. Brennan, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that deliberate indifference to the substantial risk of sexual abuse violates an incarcerated individual’s rights. As the Court so aptly stated, sexual abuse is ‘not part of the penalty that criminal offenders pay for their offenses against society.’”

The summary then continues discussing the Commissions nine findings, as well as select policies and practices that must be mandatory everywhere to remedy the problem. Here, without associated remedies are these nine findings:

Finding 1: Protecting prisoners from sexual abuse remains a challenge in correctional facilities across the country. Too often, in what should be secure environments, men, women, and children are raped or abused by other incarcerated individuals and corrections staff.

Finding 2: Sexual abuse is not an inevitable feature of incarceration. Leadership matters because corrections administrators can create a culture within facilities that promotes safety instead of one that tolerates abuse.

Finding 3: Certain individuals are more at risk of sexual abuse than others. Corrections administrators must routinely do more to identify those who are vulnerable and protect them in ways that do not leave them isolated and without access to rehabilitative programming.

Finding 4: Few correctional facilities are subject to the kind of rigorous internal monitoring and external oversight that would reveal why abuse occurs and how to prevent it. Dramatic reductions in sexual abuse depend on both.

Finding 5: Many victims cannot safely and easily report sexual abuse, and those who speak out often do so to no avail. Reporting procedures must be improved to instill confidence and protect individuals from retaliation without relying on isolation. Investigations must be thorough and competent. Perpetrators must be held accountable through administrative sanctions and criminal prosecution.

Finding 6: Victims are unlikely to receive the treatment and support known to minimize the trauma of abuse. Correctional facilities need to ensure immediate and ongoing access to medical and mental health care and supportive services.

Finding 7: Juveniles in confinement are much more likely than incarcerated adults to be sexually abused, and they are particularly at risk when confined with adults. To be effective, sexual abuse prevention, investigation, and treatment must be tailored to the developmental capacities and needs of youth.

Finding 8: Individuals under correctional supervision in the community, who outnumber prisoners by more than two to one, are at risk of sexual abuse. The nature and consequences of the abuse are no less severe, and it jeopardizes the likelihood of their successful reentry.

Finding 9: A large and growing number of detained immigrants are at risk of sexual abuse. Their heightened vulnerability and unusual circumstances require special interventions.

The National Prison Rape Elimination Commission’s work represents a sea change in public consciousness and in national commitment to protecting individuals under correctional supervision from sexual abuse. Already, the Commission has seen ideas transformed into actions that by all accounts have the potential to improve safety. This is just the beginning. When the Attorney General issues mandatory standards, they will accelerate the pace of reform and ensure that the same fundamental protections are available in every correctional and detention setting. Our obligations, both moral and legal, require nothing less.

To view the entire NPREC report, click here.

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