Final Public Comment Period for New Standards to Address Prisoner Rape Ends Soon

Last year, I wrote quite a bit about prisoner rape and the failure of the Department of Justice to implement new standards to address the epidemic in a timely fashion. I previously urged you to submit public comments to the Justice Department regarding the implementation of new guidelines. Almost a year has passed, and still the Justice Department is moving ahead on the issue at a snail’s pace, as people in detention are being raped every day with little to no recourse, and with their rapists (most likely to be prison guards) frequently controlling every aspect of their lives.

Now, we are entering the very end of the final comment period, which closes on April 4, 2011. After this comment period ends, the Department of Justice will finalize its new standards regarding prison rape, and prisons will all have one year to comply or risk losing federal funding.

This final comment period is extraordinarily important, because the new standards are not even remotely shaping up to be the sweeping set of changes that are required. A press release I received via email from Just Detention International reads in part (emphasis mine):

“Key parts of the Justice Department’s standards are unconscionably weak,” said Lovisa Stannow, Just Detention International’s Executive Director. “The next few days are the last chance for advocates, survivors, forward-thinking corrections officials, and concerned citizens to demand that something meaningful be done about the disgraceful epidemic of prisoner rape.”

In 2003, Congress unanimously passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). PREA created the bipartisan National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, which spent years studying the problem before delivering its recommendations to Attorney General Eric Holder for ratification. In his proposed version of the standards, however, Holder has dramatically watered down the consensus recommendations by the commission.

Holder has removed limits on cross-gender pat searches and viewing of inmates using the toilet or shower, despite having documented that most staff abuse of inmates is cross-gender, and that it often begins during pat searches. Contrary to the clear intent of PREA, the Department has also decided that the standards should not apply to immigration facilities — even though immigration detainees are among the most vulnerable to abuse. Holder has even proposed that corrections agencies be allowed to police their own compliance with the standards by using an internal employee to conduct audits, rejecting the commission’s recommendation (and standard practice in the Western world) that oversight be conducted by independent monitors.

“The stated reason for weakening the commission’s recommendations was cost,” said Stannow.  “But the Justice Department’s own data, together with its preliminary cost-benefit analysis of the standards, make abundantly clear that much stronger standards would be warranted even from a purely financial perspective. This suggests that the Attorney General’s true reasons for weakening the standards are primarily political.

These changes are dramatic, they are unconscionable, and they are unworkable. And they cannot be allowed to go forward without a fight. Restricting cross-gender supervision is one of the most obvious ways to effectively prevent a large number of assaults that are being committed every single day. And attempting to address the issue of sexual violence in detention without addressing immigration facilities is blatantly discriminatory and hateful, not to mention hugely ineffective. That there could possibly even be political reasons to not take the most effective steps to prevent prisoners from being raped is sickening and infuriating.

But the prison lobby is strong, and so is the anti-immigration lobby, which frankly believes that undocumented persons don’t deserve safety or protection of any kind. That’s why getting as many comments in before the deadline on Monday is extremely important.

Just Detention International has all the information you need to submit your public comment. JDI provides a letter template for you, but please take the time to write your own. Submitting public comments is not like contacting your representative — it is quality that counts over quantity. The Department of Justice needs to hear about why standards to address prisoner rape need to be strict, why they need to include immigration facilities, and why restrictions on cross-gender supervision are an integral part of any serious effort to prevent as many assaults as possible immediately. Read more in-depth talking points from Just Detention International and get your comments in by Monday, April 4.

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