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Prison Rape Standards: A Start, But Only a Start

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Almost a decade after the law requiring them passed Congress and two years after the original deadline for announcing them, the Department of Justice has, at last, come out with mandatory, nationwide standards to prevent rape in detention facilities. The standards, decent although flawed, are a first step -- but only a first step -- towards confronting America's most ignored, serious crime problem.

The facts are simple and shocking: rape in prisons happens all the time. A new report from the Department of Justice, indeed, shows that at least 1 correctional facility inmate in ten faced sexual abuse during his or her most recent period behind bars. Even by conservative estimates, there are over 100,000 actual rapes behind bars each year (some sexual offenses short of actual rape are included in the study) while FBI statistics show there were about 85,000 rapes reported in the country as a whole (population 311 million). Although sexual abuse comes in every variety -- male guards assaulting female inmates, female guards assaulting male inmates, and female inmates assaulting one another -- the majority of assaults behind bars involve male inmates violating other male inmates. Although almost everyone in prison has done something very bad, common decency alone dictates that rape simply shouldn't be a punishment for any crime. Ever.

The new federal policies take a step towards confronting this problem. They'll require tough anti-rape policies, lengthen the period in which inmates can report sexual abuse (necessary because the trauma involved can make it hard to step forward quickly), improve services for those victimized behind bars, and put into place strong protections for particularly vulnerable lesbian, gay, and transgendered inmates. Finally, all facilities will have to have their policies audited every three years.

That said, the standards have some serious holes. They don't apply to immigration lockups (even though Congress intended that they should) and still allow female guards to strip search male inmates. Although they take force in the Federal prison system immediately, states will still have a year to comply and, given the glacial pace at which the Obama Justice Department has moved to implement the standards, it's quite possible that some will take longer.

Still, within a few years, the official rape prevention rules in every correctional facility in the country will be a lot better than they were a decade ago. And, most likely, sexual assault will become less common behind bars as a result.

The problem, however, isn't going to go away until a real cultural shift takes place in America. And there's precious little sign of that happening. Although the Prison Rape Elimination Act that requires the standards passed both houses of Congress unanimously and no public figure has ever endorsed prison rape, it still remains a topic for comedy in all too many cases. How many other serious violent crimes, after all, are fodder for sitcom punch-lines and late night talk show hosts?

And that's why the standards, as are, are just a start. While rules and penalties can and do deter wrongdoing, broader social changes do a lot more. In the 1960s, drunk driving and littering were winked at even amongst the "respectable" classes: public education campaigns, new laws, and cultural shifts that resulted made both of them socially unacceptable and, as a result, the roads are safer and public places cleaner than they were. The same thing needs to happen with prison rape. Until it does, however, the extraordinary prevalence of sexual abuse in prison will remain a great moral failing of modern America.