Prison rape report spurs call for Congress to intervene

Most human-rights advocates are using today's Justice Department report on prison rape to urge the Obama administration to expedite new rules designed to eliminate the assaults. 

But some are arguing that Congress has a role to play as well.

Jennifer Bellamy, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said Thursday that the new report, issued by the DOJ Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), "underlines the need for Congress to swiftly pass the Prison Abuse Remedies Act."

That bill, sponsored by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), would amend the 1995 Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) to make it easier for victims of prison rape to file lawsuits against their attackers — who in many cases are prison staff. 

The PLRA was designed to prevent frivolous suits from clogging the courts, but human rights groups say it's also been abused to deny justice to sexual assault victims — particularly in cases when prison staff are responsible both for the assault and managing the complaint stemming from the assault. 

"While this bill sits idle, thousands of prisoners face sexual abuse with little to no recourse," Bellamy said in a statement. "Congress has a duty to ensure that our nation's prisoners are not further shackled by their lack of legal rights."

Thursday's BJS report found that almost 90,000 inmates were sexually assaulted last year. Almost three percent of all male prisoners reported at least one episode involving facility staff, BJS found, while 2.1 percent of all female prisoners reported the same.