By Mike Lillis - 06/23/10 12:23 AM EDT
Pressured by a resistant prison industry, the Department of Justice (DoJ) will miss its legal deadline on Wednesday for establishing new standards designed to reduce rape in the nation’s prisons.
The long-running saga — which dates to 2003, when Congress passed a law requiring new rules — has angered some lawmakers and prisoner-rights advocates, who contend that each day the guidelines are delayed, preventable assaults are taking place.
“I don’t know what Holder’s problem is,” he added, referring to Attorney General Eric Holder.
Holder defended the agency Tuesday in a letter to Wolf and Rep. Robert “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), another strong supporter of the new guidelines, saying DoJ is moving as quickly as it can.
“It is essential,” Holder wrote, “that the department take the time necessary to craft regulations that will endure.”
At issue is a seven-year-old law requiring the DoJ to forge new rules designed to prevent assaults in correctional facilities, including juvenile detention centers.
Signed into law by President George W. Bush, the legislation created a commission that spent more than four years studying prison assaults before issuing its recommendations last June. Among the proposed standards, commissioners suggested that prisons take further steps to isolate vulnerable inmates from more violent offenders and separate genders during inspections and searches.
The recommendations would not be mandatory, but prisons failing to adopt them would see cuts in federal funding.
Although the law required DoJ to finalize the standards by Wednesday, the process has been delayed indefinitely while the agency has sought additional public comment and cost estimates.
Jamie Fellner, senior counsel at Human Rights Watch and a member of the commission that made the recommendations, said this week that the agency’s decision to take those additional steps represents “an unduly prolonged analysis” that defies Congress’s intent to adopt the standards quickly. At the root of the delay, Fellner added, has been the opposition from prisons, which would likely face new costs to adopt the reforms.
“They don’t want to take on the additional costs,” Fellner said.
Testifying before a House panel in March, Holder conceded as much, telling lawmakers that the holdup is largely the result of pushback from prison officials.
“When I speak to wardens, when I speak to people who run local jails, when I speak to people who run state facilities, they look at me and they say, ‘Eric, how are we supposed to do this?’ ” Holder told members of a House Appropriations subcommittee. “ ‘If we are going to segregate people, build new facilities, do training, how are we supposed to do this?’ ”
One stipulation of the law is that the reforms must not “impose substantial additional costs” on prisons. The administration’s focus on costs, Holder wrote Tuesday, is derived not only from the law, but from consideration of the tough economy that’s put a crunch on almost every state budget.
But human-rights advocates argue that the administration has simply caved to the same industry the new rules aim to rein in.
“Prison officials claim that it will be too expensive to implement [the standards] — too expensive to prevent staff from raping detainees,” Lovisa Stannow, executive director of Justice Detention International, a prisoner-rights group, wrote in the Huffington Post earlier this year.
Stannow argues that the cost analyses being considered ignore the cost benefits that would result if the prison rapes were reduced. Medical costs could be cut, she says, as well as the legal expenses resulting from prisoner lawsuits.
A series of recent studies adds legitimacy to the advocates’ concerns. The DoJ, estimates that more than 60,000 prisoners suffer sexual assaults at the hands of guards or other prisoners each year. Another study, released in January, found that 12 percent of juveniles in detention facilities are assaulted.
“It’s brutal,” Wolf said. “Night is frightening.”