April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and one place we need to be especially aware of sexual assault is behind bars.
Every year, more than 100,000 men, women and children are victimized while behind bars, frequently by corrections officials. The U.S. attorney general is reviewing national standards aimed at preventing and addressing this type of abuse. Until May 10, these measures are open for public comments.
If fully implemented, the national standards will spare countless Americans the horror of sexual abuse. But the standards are under threat. Prison officials claim that it will be too expensive to implement them — too expensive to prevent staff from raping detainees.
Sexual assault anywhere is devastating, physically and emotionally. When such abuse happens in prison, victims face extreme challenges. They tend to suffer in silence and are forced to remain in regular contact with their assailants. And prisoners have no access to rape crisis counseling in the aftermath of an attack.
In 2003, Congress recognized that the victimization of inmates constitutes a national crisis and unanimously passed the U.S. Prison Rape Elimination Act.
The national standards currently under review by Attorney General Eric Holder were developed by a bipartisan federal commission through extensive consultation with corrections officials, criminal justice experts, advocates and prisoner rape survivors. They are basic, common-sense measures, highlighting the need to train staff, identify likely rape victims and likely predators, and ensure that prisons are independently audited.
Holder has until June to review the standards and codify them as federal regulations, making them binding on detention facilities.
Sadly, it now looks like Holder will not meet his deadline. The delay is due, in large part, to a problematic cost projection study commissioned by the Justice Department in response to pressure from corrections leaders.
The moral case for these federal regulations is unassailable. But there is also a strong financial case, since the standards would help eliminate sexual abuse that, in the past few years alone, has resulted in litigation costing corrections systems many millions of dollars in damages.
Contrary to what some critics say, the standards do not require substantial financial outlays. Corrections departments that already have started implementing the standards have been able to do so without increasing their spending.
Lovisa Stannow is the executive director of Just Detention International, an international human rights organization that seeks to end sexual abuse in prisons. She wrote this for Progressive Media Project.