Rising prison sex assaults spur advocates' calls for reform

Nearly 90,000 inmates were sexually abused last year at the hands of guards and fellow prisoners, the government reported Thursday.

The report has added fuel to a years-long push by prison reformers and human rights advocates for the Department of Justice (DOJ) to adopt stricter standards to rein in prison rape — rules the agency was supposed to put in place in June, but has delayed largely due to pressures from the prison industry.

Thursday's report, issued by the DOJ's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), reveals that a failure to act can have serious consequences, with roughly 88,500 inmates found to be victims of sexual assault last year. About 64,500 of those inmates were being held in prisons — representing 4.4 percent of the nation's prison population — and 24,000 in jails (3.1 percent of the jail population).

The average victim was abused between three and five times over the course of the year, BJS found. 

A similar youth survey, released in January, found that the abuse in juvenile facilities is even worse, with 12 percent of detainees reporting sexual assaults.

It's not that policymakers are unaware of the problem. In 2003, Congress passed bipartisan legislation to examine the frequency of prison rapes and install new guidelines for preventing them. An expert committee spent more than four years studying the issue, and sent recommendations to the DOJ in the summer of 2009.

Among the proposed reforms, panel members suggested that prisons isolate vulnerable inmates from more violent offenders; that facilities don't allow guards of one gender to perform physical searches on inmates of the other gender; and that independent inspectors be allowed to audit prisons every few years.

Based on those recommendations, DOJ was charged under the 2003 law with finalizing new rules by June 2010. 

It didn't happen. 

Instead, Attorney General Eric Holder said earlier this year that the agency has delayed the process, largely over concerns from the prisons that the proposed guidelines would be too expensive to implement. 

“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 in March. “ ‘If we are going to segregate people, build new facilities, do training, how are we supposed to do this?’ ”

A DOJ spokeswoman said earlier this month that the agency will issue proposed standards this fall — meaning the final rules likely won't take hold for months afterward. 

Prison reform advocates don't like the delay, and they're pointing to Thursday's BJS report as reason the agency should quicken its pace. 

"Every day that the Attorney General doesn’t finalize the national standards is another day of anguish among prisoner rape survivors, of preventable safety breaches in prisons and jails, and of significant spending of taxpayers’ money on medical treatment, investigations, and litigation that could have been avoided," Lovisa Stannow, executive director of Just Detention International, a prisoner-rights group, said Thursday in a statement.

Of note, more prisoners reported sexual assaults involving facility staff (2.8 percent) than other inmates (2.1 percent). The same trend held true in jails, where 2.0 percent of inmates reported sex or sexual contact with staff, versus 1.5 percent reporting incidents involving jailmates. 

Among the other key findings: 

• Female prisoners (4.7 percent) were much more likely than male prisoners (1.9 percent) to be assaulted by other inmates.

• Some facilities are better than others at controlling assaults. Of the 463 facilities surveyed, eight male prisons, two female prisons and six jails were deemed "worst offenders" based on the frequency of inmate-on-inmate assaults. Four male prisons, two female prisons and five jails were identified as “high rate” based on the number of staff-related incidents.

• Among male inmates (prison and jail) who reported staff-related incidents, two-thirds involved female staff. 

The findings are based on a survey of more than 81,500 inmates in 167 state and federal prisons, 286 jails and 10 special confinement facilities. It was conducted between October 2008 and December 2009.