The prospect of spending years behind bars in a tiny cell is sufficiently chilling to deter most people from ever committing a crime. Those who willfully break the law anyway and get caught have no one to blame but themselves when a judge sentences them to prison. But even convicted felons shouldn't have to suffer the extralegal indignity and physical trauma of being raped by fellow inmates and prison staff while they're serving their time.
Sexual assaults in the nation's prisons are alarmingly common. A 2008 survey of former state prison inmates released by theU.S. Department of Justicelast week found that 1 in 10 prisoners had been sexually assaulted while incarcerated. That's some 200,000 people out of the total U.S. prison population of more than 2 million, a number that should be unconscionable no matter how heinous the crimes these offenders committed.
Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 with strong bipartisan support to address what has been called an epidemic of prison rapes. The law set up a commission to study the problem and make recommendations to help the Justice Department draft new rules aimed at reducing the number of sexual assaults in prisons. After dragging its feet for nearly a decade, the DOJ has finally come up with the new guidelines, but they still don't go far enough to protect inmates' health and safety.
The new rules will require correctional institutions to be audited every three years to determine how many rapes are reported and document prison authorities' response to them. In prisons, sexual assault victims are likely to be the most vulnerable inmates, such as the mentally or physically disabled and youthful offenders held in the same facilities as hardened adult criminals. The rules require separating these groups from the most dangerous prisoners and creating multiple channels for reporting abuse. In addition, prison officials must monitor those who report abuse and take reasonable steps to shield them from retribution.
The law passed by Congress applies to all federal prisons as well as those operated by the Department of Homeland Security, but they are not binding on state and local detention facilities. Maryland has already taken several steps to address the problem of prison rape, including installing cameras in prisons to collect data on assaults, creating a separate database to keep track of abuse cases and setting up a coordinating committee to ensure the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services is in compliance with federal standards. In addition, the department is working with the National Institute of Corrections to train staff and make sure inmates understand how to recognize and report sexual abuse.
But the state and federal governments still have a long way to go to make prison rapes a thing of the past in detention facilities. Juvenile offenders remain at risk for being attacked by older inmates in some local lockups, and systems for reporting abuse vary widely across jurisdictions. The lack of uniform standards has led some in the public to regard rapes and sexual assaults in prison as inevitable risks of incarceration, as if they were just another form of well-deserved punishment meted out to offenders.
They are not. No one deserves to be raped in prison, and state and federal officials must do whatever is necessary to ensure that when justice is done in its courts, the sentence handed down won't condemn an offender to a purgatory of humiliating sexual abuse as well as the pain of confinement.