Statement of Senator Dick Durbin

Mr. President, I rise to speak about the human rights issue of sexual assault in U.S. prisons, jails, and detention centers – and the historic release of our country’s first-ever national standards to eliminate prison rape.

When the government takes people into custody, and puts them behind bars, their human rights become our responsibility. And we are accountable for the results. In studying this issue for nearly a decade, we learned that sexual assault in detention has become an epidemic. It is occurring at the hands of other inmates, and it is occurring at the hands of prison officials whose job it is to protect.
We learned that hundreds of thousands of inmates are victims of sexual assault every year. According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report released this month, approximately one out of ten former state prisoners reported incidents of sexual victimization during their most recent stay behind bars. Approximately a third of former inmates reported other types of sexual harassment or victimization. Many say these are conservative estimates of those brave enough to report.

It is also disturbing that “prison rape” has become an accepted part of our culture. We hear people make light of it in jokes, in movies, in television shows. It is a common pop culture reference. This is unacceptable, and it sends the message that this brutal, terrorizing conduct is actually part of a United States prison sentence. As our Supreme Court has said, it is not. The Court stated, in the 1994 case of Farmer v. Brennan, that being violently assaulted in prison is not part of the penalty offenders should pay for their offenses against society.

Winston Churchill declared in 1910: “The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country.” We are utterly failing the test when it comes to prison rape. Our status quo is intolerable for a country that prides itself on its commitment to civil liberties, to civil rights, and to human rights.
And this issue affects so many individuals and their families so deeply. We have more than two million people incarcerated in America today. We incarcerate more individuals, and at a higher per capita rate, than any other country on earth.

Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act, “PREA,” in 2003. This was a bipartisan effort so important that its champions included unlikely bedfellows like Senators Jeff Sessions and Edward M. Kennedy. I was an original cosponsor of this legislation. Just last week, the Department of Justice finally issued the first-ever national standards to prevent, detect, and respond to prison rape, which are required under PREA.

These are historic regulations that aim to eliminate sexual assault in all federal, state, and local facilities. I applaud President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder on their achievement. This nearly 300-page document represents one of the most comprehensive and challenging rulemaking processes the Department of Justice has undertaken in decades.

Read the full statement here.