Prison rape must be taken seriously

But the inmates don't deserve it. Regardless of the crimes they have committed, no offender's sentence includes being raped while in the custody of the government. By its very nature, imprisonment means a loss of control over the circumstances in which inmates live. They cannot choose their neighbors (cellmates), nor where to shower, nor to arm themselves, nor take other steps to protect themselves. Because the government has total control over where and how inmates live, it is the government's responsibility to make sure they aren't harmed while in custody. And our prisons have failed in that duty. That is why Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) unanimously.

PREA established the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission (NPREC) to study the incidence of rape in our prisons, and to recommend standards to hold prison officials accountable for stopping rapes in their prisons. The commission developed tough but reasonable standards that will help eliminate rapes from our prisons. Yet, the attorney general has chosen to substantially weaken these standards by allowing prison systems to police their own progress in fighting prison rape.

The attorney general also exempts immigration facilities from any of the prison rape standards, leaving them with no pressure to deal with the rapes taking place in their facilities.

Chuck Colson, the founder of Prison Fellowship, has described the horror of rape in our prisons. "Since my release I’ve visited hundreds of prisons. I’ve met many inmates who had been raped. I’ve seen blood on the floor of a cell after a rape, and my heart grieved for the victim. For decades, this barbarism has been hidden from public view. But finally, prison officials and politicians are talking about it and doing something about it."

Prison Fellowship's volunteers are frequently confronted with inmates broken in spirit as well as body by vicious rapes at the hands of fellow prisoners or by the officers who are supposed to guard them. How could we not speak up on these inmates' behalf? They have no other voice than ours. That is why we object so strongly to the weakening of the standards as proposed by the Department of Justice (DOJ).

Prison Fellowship asks that the attorney general adopt standards that give the high level of protection offered by the NPREC standards. In particular, Prison Fellowship asks that the attorney general should restore the tough NPREC standards. At a minimum, the standards should:

•    Prohibit cross-gender pat down searches except in emergencies. Many sexual assaults by officers on inmates start with aggressive pat searches. This prohibition should apply to both sexes. Is it any less offensive to have unwarranted aggressive groping to a man than a woman?
•    Restore the strict standards of independent audits proposed by NPREC. Without outside oversight to ensure compliance the standards will have little effect.
•    Protect immigrants in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers. PREA was enacted when Immigration and Naturalization Service centers were under DOJ and the clear intention was to include detainees in immigration facilities under its protections.
•    Restore the requirement that prisons enforce PREA. The DOJ's standards don't require enforcement of PREA, but merely requires the prison develop a plan to protect inmates. There is no provision that requires enforcement of those plans. There should be.

If rapes are to be eliminated from American prisons we must not continue with business as usual in our prisons. Several states and jails have already implemented these standards without difficulty and without excessive costs. It is possible to protect inmates from sexual assaults. It is now up to the attorney general to provide strong standards to hold prison officials accountable for eliminating rapes in our prisons. We urge him to set aside the proposed standards that weaken these protections, and reinstate the NPREC standards where they are stronger.

The attorney general has the ability, indeed the duty, to establish strong standards to protect those in the government's care. We are a better people than our record on prison rape would indicate. And the strength of the prison rape standards will determine if the stain of prison rape will be addressed and our national honor restored.

Pat Nolan is the vice president of the prison outreach organization Prison Fellowship and a former member of the now defunct National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, a panel of experts established by the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003.