Advocacy groups push back on delayed prison-rape standards

An odd coalition of religious groups, human-rights advocates and prison reformers is pushing the Obama administration to hurry new standards designed to eliminate rape in the nation’s prisons — standards that are already two months overdue.

"At this moment, standards to eradicate sexual assault in prisons await your approval," the groups wrote in an Aug. 2 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder. "We urge you to make a priority of completing your review and adopt the standards as swiftly as possible."

Signatories included representatives of organizations as diverse as Focus on the Family, Human Rights Watch, the National Association of Evangelicals and the American Civil Liberties Union. 

Delay comes with serious consequences. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) has estimated that 60,000 prisoners — 5 percent of the adult prison population — are sexually assaulted each year. And the statistics are worse in juvenile facilities, where 12 percent of detained youths reported being victims of sexual assault in the past year, BJS reported recently.

A 2003 law, the bipartisan Prison Rape Elimination Act, was designed to eradicate the problem. But although an expert panel proposed new prison-rape standards 14 months ago after an exhaustive four-year review — and though the Department of Justice (DOJ) was supposed to have finalized the rules in June — the agency has delayed the process indefinitely over concerns that it will cost prisons too much to implement the changes.

"The failure of the administration to act is sending a very strong message," Gene Guerrero, criminal justice analyst at the Open Society Policy Center, told reporters at a press conference in Washington on Tuesday.  

Among the proposed changes, the expert panel suggested that prisons isolate vulnerable inmates from more violent offenders; separate genders during inspections and searches; and allow independent inspectors to audit their facilities every few years.

"Even the most rigorous internal monitoring," panel members wrote in their 2009 report, "is no substitute for opening up correctional facilities to outside review."

But Holder told lawmakers in March that pushback from prison officials has left the agency reluctant to institute the reforms. 

“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?’ ”

Prison reformers argue that the cost concerns are overblown. 

"While many corrections leaders strongly support the standards, some officials have exaggerated the cost of implementing these basic measures," the groups wrote to Holder this month. 

The cost projections, for instance, tend to ignore the savings the prisons would see if rapes were reduced, the groups note. Healthcare and litigation costs, for example, would be cut if the new standards were installed, the advocates argue.

Additionally, reformers contend, the cost concerns shouldn't outweigh efforts to rein in prison assaults. “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 Just Detention International, a prisoner-rights group, noted in the Huffington Post earlier this year.

DOJ spokeswoman Hannah August said Tuesday that officials "are working diligently" to install the guidelines "as soon as possible." The agency is expecting to issue proposed standards in the fall, she said.

For proponents of reform, it can't happen soon enough.

"This is a basic humanitarian issue," said Barrett Duke, a leader of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. 

Prisoners are rightfully being punished for crimes, he added, "but sexual abuse is not supposed to be a part of that."