08/21/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Getting Serious About Prison Rape

Women raped while in prisons in Michigan won a huge victory with the state providing $100 million to settle their claims. This settlement is not only a vindication for these women, who were raped while in the custody of the government, but also solid evidence that prison rape will no longer be tolerated.

This good news follows on the heels of the last month's historic release of the report of the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission. The report, which culminates six years of work by the commission and its staff, leaves no doubt that prison rape is a significant problem in our prisons. According to a study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, at least 65,000 inmates are sexually assaulted in prisons each year. The standards which accompany the report will hold prison officials accountable for fighting prison rape. The standards establish a zero tolerance policy regarding rape and sexual assault in our prisons.

Prison rape has long been a staple of jokes on late night TV, but otherwise it has been ignored as an unseemly but intractable problem of our prisons. When one Massachusetts prison official was asked what should be done to combat prison rape, he responded "It's prison. What can I say?"

All that changed when a broad coalition of civil rights, religious and political groups from the left and right joined together to press for the passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act. The breadth of the coalition is evidenced by the senators who joined together as chief sponsors -- Ted Kennedy and Jeff Sessions. They both took the position that it was immoral to allow people in government facilities to be sexually assaulted and raped.

The standards adopted by the Commission must now be approved by the Attorney General. Once approved, the standards will immediately apply to federal prisons. The states must adopt them or face the loss of a portion of federal funds intended for prisons.

With the Michigan settlement and the Commission's report, it is obvious that a new day has come in the treatment of sexual crimes in prison. No crime, no matter how heinous, has a sentence that includes being raped. Faced with a horrible and scandalous situation in our prisons, the government has responded appropriately. That is something we can all be proud of.

To learn more about the fight against prison rape see Justice Fellowship's Resource page on Prison Rape. Winston Churchill said, "...the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilization of any country." Until our prisoners are safe from being raped we will have failed this test of civilization.