The White House on Thursday ordered federal, state, county and local prisons and detention facilities to step up their fight against prison rape, issuing a series of new mandatory guidelines designed to combat sexual abuse.
The regulations are part of a detailed plan for the implementation of the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act, which aims to eliminate the rapes and sexual assaults that the law's advocates say are rampant and grossly overlooked. It comes on the heels of a new Justice Department survey of former state and local prisoners that found almost one in 10 were sexually assaulted at least once while incarcerated by either a fellow prisoner or member of the prison staff.
For too long, incidents of sexual abuse against incarcerated persons have not been taken as seriously as sexual abuse outside prison walls, the U.S. Department of Justice said in a statement on the standards. In popular culture, prison rape is often the subject of jokes; in public discourse, it has been at times dismissed by some as an inevitable - or even deserved - consequence of criminality.
The new guidelines, which are immediately binding on federal prisons, include screening inmates for the potential of sexual victimization and using that information in housing and work assignments. Background checks on correction facility employees also are required, as well as keeping juvenile inmates away from adult inmates, requiring facilities to preserve evidence after a reported incident and requiring the termination of staff members who victimize prisoners.
Other measures intended to reduce sexual abuse include a ban on cross-gender pat-down searches, video monitoring, and keeping tabs on lesbian, gay, transgender or bisexual inmates who may be particularly vulnerable to abuse.
Each facility will be audited every three years to assess its compliance of the guidelines. States that do not comply with the standards will lose 5 percent of funds they would otherwise receive from the Justice Department. Organizations responsible for the accreditation of correctional facilities will also have federal grants revoked unless they adopt accreditation standards consistent with the guidelines set forth in the final rule.
The Justice Department's first-ever National Prisoners Survey found that 9.6 percent of the 18,526 former inmates surveyed said they had been sexually victimized in jails, prisons and halfway houses, often at the hand of staff members. The study defines sexual victimization as all varieties of unwanted sexual activity with other inmates, abusive sexual activity with other inmates and both willing and unwilling sexual encounters with staff.
Among the inmates who reported incidents of abuse, about 27,300 said the incident occurred at the hands of another inmate, while 23,3000 said they were violated by facility staff members.
Half of those who said they were victimized by staff members said they were offered favors or privileges in exchange, while a third said they were persuaded to participate.
While the guidelines are not immediately binding for state prisons, the report found that a majority of the reported abuse occurred in those facilities.
Of course, federal and state facilities are far from the only institutions housing prisoners. About 8 percent of the nation's incarcerated population was housed in private prison facilities in 2009, according to the most recent statistics from the Justice Department, which reports the private prison population grew from 87,369 to 129,336 between 2000 and 2009.
Last week, shareholders of the Corrections Corp. of America., the nation's largest private corrections company, rejected a resolution to improve its reporting requirements for sexual abuse. However, in a statement spokesman Steve Owen said the company would comply with new federal regulations.