Attorney General Misses Historic Opportunity to End Sexual Abuse Behind Bars

Let's remember that when the government removes someone's freedom, it takes on an absolute responsibility to protect that person from abuse.
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Today, June 23, Attorney General Eric Holder missed a critical opportunity to stop the sexual abuse of ten of thousands of Americans. He did so by failing to meet the deadline for enacting the first-ever national standards addressing prisoner rape.

These vitally important measures were mandated by the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) and were released one year ago today by the bipartisan National Prison Rape Elimination Commission. According to PREA, the Attorney General had one year to review the standards before publishing a final rule making these measures federal regulations. Sadly, Holder didn't just narrowly allow today's deadline to pass - he is many months away from completing a costly and duplicative review of the Commission's recommendations.

Missing a statutory deadline is obviously not a good thing, but today's failure is about much more than administrative inefficiency. The standards developed by the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission have the potential literally to prevent the rape and devastation of the lives of men, women, and youth in prisons and jails across the country. Let's remember that when the government removes someone's freedom, it takes on an absolute responsibility to protect that person from abuse.

Thanks to data collection mandated by PREA, we now know a lot about the prevalence of sexual abuse in U.S. detention. Nationwide surveys by Eric Holder's own Department of Justice have made clear the magnitude of this crisis; some 100,000 inmates are sexually abused in U.S. detention every year.

Disappointingly, in response to opposition to the recommended national standards by leading corrections associations and administrators, the Department of Justice has commissioned a $1.3 million cost projection study from consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton. Despite a Freedom of Information Act request made months ago by Just Detention International, Booz Allen has strenuously opposed disclosing the terms of its contract, leading the Department of Justice to refuse to share this information with us.

We do, however, know a few things about the Booz Allen study; notably, it is not a cost-benefit analysis. In other words, it will not take into account any of the enormous benefits of ending prisoner rape - both moral and financial. The study relies solely on the projections of corrections administrators, who have significant incentives to inflate costs, or at least encourage more expensive means of implementing the standards, as they ultimately need to present and defend budget requests to their appropriators.

While some corrections leaders have been busy complaining about the standards, others have chosen to spend their time and resources on something more productive: implementing them, and doing everything else they can to end the rape of prisoners. And the truth is that for facilities with committed leaders, sound policies, and safe practices, the national standards are relatively easy to fulfill. They represent known best practices; in most cases they spell out the obvious, such as the importance of staff training and proper classification of inmates, to make sure that potential victims and potential perpetrators aren't placed in the same cell.

Simply put, these standards are a basic, common-sense, and urgently needed tool to end the unconscionable abuse of detainees. They represent minimum constitutional obligations to protect inmates from harm. It is past time for Attorney General Eric Holder to do his part to uphold those obligations.

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