The American Civil Liberties Union and a broad coalition of religious, political, human rights, and civil rights groups has called on U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to immediately adopt a set of proposed standards aimed at eradicating sexual assault in the nation's prisons.
The standards, issued over a year ago by the blue-ribbon, bipartisan National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, would, if adopted by Holder, provide an important guide for corrections professionals to eliminate sexual abuse in their facilities and measure the effectiveness of their efforts. The coalition previously called on Holder to adopt the standards in a letter sent in August.
"The commission's proposed standards merely put into words what the Constitution already requires," says Amy Fettig, staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project. "Prison officials have a constitutional obligation to provide prisoners with protection against violence and sexual abuse, and Attorney General Holder should implement the standards without delay."
The proposed standards would also help hold corrections officials accountable by helping reform-minded officials indentify their facilities' strengths and weaknesses while ensuring that those who continue to deny the high incidence of sexual abuse of prisoners are no longer able to minimize the extent of the problem.
The proposed standards also include important provisions that would make it easier for prison-rape victims seeking their day in court to file lawsuits challenging their inhumane treatment. Since the 1996 passage of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, victims are forced to exhaust the internal complaint processes of their correctional institution before filing a lawsuit — processes that are often comprised of arbitrary rules that are impossible for prisoners to navigate.
According to Bureau of Justice statistics, more than 60,000 prisoners — one of every 20 — were sexually assaulted in 2009. The problem is even worse in juvenile institutions, where one in eight juvenile detainees were victims of sexual assault last year.
"There is a deeply ingrained culture of acceptance when it comes to prison rape in too many prisons and jails across the country," says Margaret Winter, associate director of the ACLU National Prison Project, who testified before NPREC and served on a committee of experts that helped develop the standards. "The proposed standards are a milestone in the long battle to end a shameful era of rampant violence and abuse within our nation's prisons and there is no excuse for the attorney general's delay in adopting them."
The proposed standards were issued by NPREC after a comprehensive study of the issues surrounding prison rape, including site visits, public hearings, and consultations with corrections experts, academics, survivors of sexual abuse in detention, and health care providers, among others.
According to the coalition's letter, while many corrections leaders strongly support the proposed standards, some officials have exaggerated the cost of implementing the basic measures outlined in the proposed standards. Cash-strapped states like California and Oregon have already begun to implement the standards without substantial additional costs. And the cost of failing to address the problem of prison rape is huge — one state prison system, for example, recently paid $100 million after more than 10 years of expensive and protracted litigation, to settle lawsuits filed by women who were sexually abused by staff at a women's facility.
The ACLU is also calling on Congress to pass the Prison Abuse Remedies Act, which would eliminate barriers created by PLRA for all prisoners seeking protection of their rights in federal court.
"The Prison Abuse Remedies Act is currently sitting idle before Congress. Passage of this bill could protect millions of our nation's prisoners from unnecessary suffering," says Jennifer Bellamy, ACLU legislative counsel. "This country currently incarcerates over 2 million Americans in increasingly abusive conditions. We cannot continue to leave them without recourse. Congress should pass the Prison Abuse Remedies Act before this legislative session is up."