The Prison Rape Elimination Act, signed into federal law 10 years ago this month, requires correctional facilities receiving federal money to develop intensive programs for preventing the sexual violence that has long been endemic behind bars. A crucial provision of the act requires that new programs be audited by examiners who are trained and certified by the Justice Department. But the department has certified nowhere near enough examiners required to inspect the thousands of prisons, jails and other institutions that need auditing.
The department’s regulations require all facilities covered by the act to adopt a zero-tolerance approach to rape, develop procedures for investigating allegations of sexual assault, and improve medical and mental health care for victims. One shortcoming of the rules is that they discourage, but do not forbid, sending young felons to adult facilities, where they are at greater risk of exploitation and harm. Congress needs to end this risky practice.
Despite these shortcomings, the act has already made a difference. Some prisons, for example, have taken the unusual step of allowing inmates access to rape crisis counselors skilled in helping victims through trauma. But, on the whole, correctional institutions are still falling short of what the law requires in terms of rape prevention.
Earlier this year, the Bureau of Justice Statistics released a study based on a survey of incarcerated people carried out between February 2011 and May 2012. An estimated 80,000 prison and county inmates experienced sexual abuse during the previous 12 months — about 4 percent of prison inmates and 3.2 percent of jail inmates nationwide. High rates of abuse were found among gay, lesbian and mentally ill inmates and inmates who had been abused before incarceration. The study also found that more than 40 institutions — including two military facilities — were particularly dangerous, with rates of sexual abuse at least twice the national average.
All this argues for strong and timely inspections. The overall system is unlikely to change until correctional facilities throughout the country are audited several times over, provided with constructive feedback and, when necessary, threatened with the loss of federal funds unless they comply with the law.