On the one hand, I was absolutely horrified—and angry—that Saturday Night Live ran a comedy skit about prison rape. There is nothing, repeat nothing, funny about prisoners being raped. On the other hand, the skit was so tasteless and appalling, that maybe, just maybe, people will stop a moment and think about the national scandal of prison rape.
A recent study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that more than 60,000 adult inmates and one in eight juveniles in custody had been sexually assaulted in the previous year.
Some people think that prisoner rape is an inevitable part of life behind bars. But it doesn’t have to be. There are many well-run facilities across the country where it is being prevented—and this shouldn’t be surprising. After all, the government has extraordinary control over the lives of those it locks up. And the government can use this same control to establish rigorous measures to stop sexual assault in its tracks.
Next month marks one year since the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission issued a strong report to the Department of Justice on the scope of sexual assault in our nation’s prisons. The report also included practical policies to end it.
The commission took several years to do its work, holding hearings across the country and listening to hundreds of experts and corrections officials. Victims told about being vulnerable to predators; about how they were left to fend for themselves after brutal attacks. Dedicated corrections officials testified about how they tried to overcome systemic problems. The commission distilled these real-life experiences into a series of recommendations.
These recommendations focus on prevention, detection and response. In addition to zero tolerance, priorities include informing inmates that they have a right to freedom from sexual abuse, instituting more stringent hiring policies for correctional staff, using efficient methods of supervision, and banning intrusive cross-gender searches except in emergencies.
Unfortunately this effort to set standards and hold prison officials accountable has become bogged down in the bureaucracy at the Department of Justice. Attorney General Eric Holder has said he is committed to ending prison rape. But instead of taking immediate action, he is allowing his employees to spend another year reviewing the work already completed by the Prison Rape Commission.
In the meantime, more adults and juveniles in prisons are being sexually assaulted every day.
The attorney general has the authority to immediately move the nation’s prisons out of the dark ages—where sexual assaults are winked at—and into a new era of zero tolerance for sexual violence. And unless the attorney general finds a compelling reason to alter them—and it’s hard to believe he could—he must implement the proposed standards.
It’s time to stop the laughing and get serious about ending rape in America’s prisons. Whatever crime our nation’s prisoners have committed, being raped is not part of their sentence.
Please write the attorney general today at the Department of Justice in Washington, DC, and urge him to adopt the standards set by the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission.