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DOJ Foot-Dragging On Prison Rape Unites Left-Right Coalition

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Focus on the Family, George Soros's Open Society Policy Center, the American Conservative Union and the American Civil Liberties Union are all furious with Attorney General Eric Holder -- and amazingly enough, it's about the same thing.

The incitement for such an unusual alliance is the Justice Department's failure to act in the face of a challenge to fundamental human dignity: The ongoing, almost commonplace rape of prisoners at the hands of other prisoners or prison guards.

Estimates based on a 2007 DOJ survey of inmates suggest that more than 60,000 prisoners -- or about 1 in 20 -- are sexually assaulted each year.

A law passed in 2003 created an independent commission to develop national standards to address the problem. The commission issued its exhaustive report in June 2009. And the attorney general was required by law to enact new standards by June 23, 2010.

That was nearly two months ago.

In a June letter June, Holder expressed his "regret" that he would not be able to meet Congress's deadline. He explained that the working group he commissioned -- which represents 13 different Justice Department offices and the Department of Homeland Security -- is moving as fast as it can.

So on Tuesday, the unusual coalition gathered at the National Press Club to demand faster action.

Prison rape continues because "the system looks the other way," said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union. And now the regulations are lagging "because this is not at the top of anybody's agenda."

But the net effect is that Holder "is asking for time so that another 60,000 can be raped," Keene said.

"We can't tolerate the attitude that it is inconvenient to do what's necessary to stop the problem today, before we rack up thousands of more victims," said Margaret Winter, associate director of the ACLU's National Prison Project.

"When you look at the political spectrum that's represented at the podium here this morning, you realize that there is something very fundamental at stake here, a question of the most fundamental human dignity, human rights and constitutional rights," Winter said.

The message for Holder: "You've had long enough. The recommendations are there. The recommendations are obvious. And they need to be put in place," said Barrett Duke, an official with the Southern Baptist Convention.

What makes this such an important issue for conservative evangelical Christians?

"We believe in law and order," Duke said. "We expect law and order everywhere." There's also the matter of moral failing. Our leaders "have failed to fulfill the responsibilities that have been entrusted to them," Duke said.

Tim Goeglein, spokesman for Focus on the Family, said his group's position on the issues is prompted "by the sanctity of every human life."

"The fact that people are not safe in our prisons ... is a scandal, that's a stain on our honor," said Pat Nolan, vice president of the Prison Fellowship and a former member of the independent commission. (See his blog post.)

Nolan noted that prisoners are "stripped of all ability to defend themselves" as they have no choice over who to associate with, or where, or when -- and they "can't arm themselves to defend themselves."

Bill Mefford, civil rights director for the United Methodist Church, said the issue is important to the "thousands and thousands" of churchgoers who minister in prisons. "They are seeing and witnessing firsthand the brokenness of the system and the way it impacts human lives," he said.

Holder, he said, should "stop dragging his feet, and stop listening to people who are trying to protect their turf."

Lovisa Stannow, executive director of Just Detention International, said there is nothing inevitable or innate about prison rape. "Prison rape is basically a management problem," she said. The proof is that the rate of rape varies widely from state to state and from prison to prison.

A Justice Department spokeswoman on Tuesday said that a proposed rule will be sent to the White House's Office of Management and Budget "in the fall." Hannah August wrote in an e-mail: "We are working hard not only to draft the standards, but also to ensure that the standards are successful after they're put into place. We want to be a force multiplier, enabling best practices to gain recognition and enabling correctional systems with less experience to benefit from the prior efforts of other jurisdictions. It is unacceptable for anyone in the care of our country's correctional facilities to be sexually assaulted, and we are working diligently towards eliminating such abuse."

In Hill testimony in March, Holder described the pushback he's getting, much of it related to the fact that no additional funding comes with the new rules. "When I speak to wardens, when I speak to people who run local jails, when I speak to people who run state facilities, they look at me and they say 'Eric, how are we supposed to do this?' If we are going to segregate people, build new facilities, do training, how are we supposed to do this? And that is what we are trying to work out, ways in which we can follow the dictates of the statute and do something that is going to be meaningful, not something that is simply going to be a show thing, something that is going to have a measurable impact."

Central to the commission's recommendation is the call for independent, outside monitoring of prisons. "Unfortunately, there is concern that the attorney general will backpedal on this key part," said Amy Fettig, staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project.

Around the Web

Prison rape - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

No Escape: Male Rape in US Prisons - www.hrw.org