Election season is often a time of conflict in American politics, and criminal justice is an infamously divisive topic. Principled disagreements about how to prevent crime, what activities should be illegal, and what sentences are fair rage throughout the Capitol and across the nation.
On one point, however, there is welcome, uniform agreement: We must end sexual abuse in our nation's prisons, jails and other detention facilities.
Nine years ago, we co-sponsored a law aimed at doing precisely that: the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) of 2003. We believe that no one deserves to be sexually abused, regardless of why they are being detained. When PREA was passed unanimously by Congress and signed by President George W. Bush, it was a momentous occasion. But the passage of the law was only the first step toward safer U.S. detention facilities.
This summer, nearly two years after its statutory deadline passed, the Justice Department finally issued landmark regulations mandated by PREA — binding national standards aimed at preventing and addressing sexual abuse in corrections facilities. These PREA standards, the first of their kind, are based on the proposed standards finalized by the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission in 2009. While the PREA standards are, in some key areas, weaker than those created by the commission, they still present the best opportunity in our lifetime to protect the millions of men, women and children behind bars from potentially life-shattering abuse.
Both of us have spoken with people who were sexually assaulted in detention. They are mothers and fathers, daughters and sons — ordinary people who suffered horrific abuse in the government's custody. Sadly, the stories they shared are not unique. Each year, according to the Justice Department, well over 200,000 people are sexually abused in our detention facilities. Shockingly, at least half of this abuse is committed by staff members — the very people our tax dollars pay to keep detainees safe.
Most victims of prisoner rape are abused repeatedly, and many suffer a lifetime of pain. Survivors also carry this trauma — and other negative health consequences — back to their communities upon release. The impact of sexual abuse in detention, in short, is not confined by prison walls.
Thankfully, the Justice Department's PREA standards will, if aggressively and effectively implemented, serve as a powerful tool for ending this crisis. The PREA standards require significant changes to corrections policy and practice, including by mandating: comprehensive staff training on proactive strategies to prevent abuse; enhanced evaluation of an inmate's vulnerability to, or propensity for, abuse; better and more regular monitoring of facility safety; improved mechanisms for inmates to report abuse; professionalized investigation of reports and preservation of evidence; comprehensive post-assault services for survivors of abuse; and compliance audits every three years for every covered facility. Finally, beginning in 2015, states that fail to certify that they are in compliance with the standards will risk losing federal dollars.
While PREA is a significant accomplishment, our work is not finished. Attorney General Eric Holder and President Obama concluded that PREA applies to all federal government detention facilities, and the president issued an executive memorandum directing the agencies to finalize regulations to implement the law within one year. Diligent oversight of the agencies' processes is required to avoid them slipping into a further period of delay — as we saw with the length of time it took the Justice Department to issue its regulations.
We also must ensure that an effective certification process for state compliance with the PREA standards is in place. Without a strong system of enforcement, the standards will not become the powerful tool for change that we envisioned almost a decade ago. Additionally, we must continue research on the prevalence of rape behind bars, as well as on best practices for ending this scourge on our detention systems. The government studies that we mandated through PREA have been an invaluable tool for facilities, advocates and policymakers.
The PREA standards alone will not end prisoner rape. Advocates, corrections officials and those of us in government all have more work to do. The good news is that sexual abuse in detention is preventable. This is a crisis we can end, by establishing strong policies and practices at prisons and jails nationwide, and by making sure that those who perpetrate sexual abuse are held accountable. On this, there is strong, bipartisan agreement.