Going Global: Prison Rape Elimination Act standards not demanding enough

Human Rights Watch released a landmark report in 2001, “No Escape: Male Rape in U.S. Prisons,” outlining the grotesque flaws in the country’s criminal justice system that allowed sexual abuse and violence to flourish in prisons. It spurred necessary action in Congress, and, with unanimous support from both parties, the Prison Rape Elimination Act was passed in 2003. The act created the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, which was tasked with developing standards that would be applied to every detention center in the country. The Department of Justice passed the standards in 2012, and soon after the immense undertaking of implementation officially began.

The NPREC spent almost a decade arguing over which standards to implement while leaving inmates without the protection of PREA. Now, the standards that have been passed are slight, lack the real weight of enforcement and some state officials are refusing to adopt them. Texas Gov. Rick Perry wrote a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, calling the standards “impossible” to implement. Many have attacked Perry for his brashness, rightfully so — he is mistaken in refusing to at least attempt to implement PREA based on his perfunctory claims regarding states’ rights and gender discrimination. However, it is unfair to suggest that PREA is without its faults.

 The act could have been momentous legislation, but, unfortunately, the DOJ passed standards that put a price on the harmful effects of sexual violence. One provision stipulates “[the] Attorney General shall not establish a national standard under this section that would impose substantial additional costs compared to the costs presently expended by Federal, State and local prison authorities.” There are over 2.4 million prisoners in the United States and the government is responsible for every single one of them. Did officials believe these standards could be implemented without added costs, and is inmate safety not worth any added cost?

Fortunately for states that cannot seem to make these changes without added funds, PREA is not even compulsory. There are incentives for states to comply, but, if they choose not to, they lose only 5 percent of federal funding meant for prison purposes, which is a category so loosely defined that it would be easy to dodge any penalty at all. PREA goes one step further and explicitly allows states to lag behind in implementation. Those that have not yet implemented the standards will not lose 5 percent of funding as long as there is “an assurance that not less than 5 percent of such amount shall be used only for the purpose of enabling the State to adopt, and achieve full compliance with, those national standards.” This leniency is unacceptable. Furthermore, prisoners who are raped or abused in facilities that have not implemented PREA are denied the right to legal recourse against the facility for failing to comply.

PREA standards focus heavily on training and educating prison employees who interact with inmates. From 2011 to 2012, around 29,300 state and federal prison inmates reported incidents involving another inmate, while about 34,100 reported incidents involving facility staff. The concentration on staff education is warranted, but it will take more than background checks and training sessions to combat abuse by employees. The average salary for correctional officers falls between $26,740 and $31,620, which is not enough incentive to attract qualified people to work such a physically and mentally taxing job. Prison employees wield tremendous power over inmates and can use it to rehabilitate those stuck in a system that is, unfortunately, not designed for rehabilitation.

The severe lag in implementation will prevent us from determining whether these standards will have a drastic positive impact on sexual violence. Some restrictions stipulated in PREA, such as prohibiting cross-gender pat down searches on female inmates, do not go into effect until Aug. 20, 2015, or Aug. 21, 2017, depending on the size of the facility. While the legislation is a step forward with eliminating rape in the country’s prisons, it has fallen victim to the lack of political will to protect convicted criminals who, despite the crimes they have committed, are bearers of human rights like the rest of us.

Nina Golshan is a deputy opinion editor. Looking Left is published every Friday. Email her at [email protected].

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