Justice Department Should Issue Prison Rape Standards
January 7, 2010
The widespread sexual abuse of children in juvenile facilities shows that public officials either aren’t paying attention or can’t be bothered to do the right thing.
Jamie Fellner, senior counsel for the US Program at Human Rights Watch

(New York) - New government data suggesting high levels of sexual abuse of confined youth in the United States should galvanize the Department of Justice to swiftly issue national standards to end prison rape, Human Rights Watch said today.

According to the first National Survey of Youth in Custody, released today by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1 in 10 youth in state juvenile facilities and large non-state facilities reported sexual victimization by staff in the previous twelve months. Another 2.6 percent reported sexual victimization at the hands of other youth. Youth who are not heterosexual are at particular risk: 1 in 5 reported sexual abuse by staff or other youth. In the very worst facilities, 20 to more than 30 percent of all youth reported abuse.  

"The widespread sexual abuse of children in juvenile facilities shows that public officials either aren't paying attention or can't be bothered to do the right thing," said Jamie Fellner, senior counsel for the US Program at Human Rights Watch. "The high rates of victimization are powerful testimony to the failure of governments to safeguard the boys and girls in their care."

Six months ago, the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, created by the National Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 (PREA), released a report documenting the nature, causes, and prevalence of rape in adult and juvenile detention facilities. Fellner was one of the eight commissioners. Based on extensive research and consultations with corrections experts and other stakeholders across the country, the Commission proposed comprehensive, effective standards for the prevention, detection, and punishment of prison rape.

Under the terms of PREA, the attorney general of the United States has one year from receipt of the Commission's proposed standards to issue final standards. Although the Justice Department has created a working group to address prison rape, it has not issued any standards nor indicated that it will do so any time soon.

"Every day Attorney General Eric Holder fails to promulgate national prison rape elimination standards is another day in which kids and adults are being abused behind bars," Fellner said. "The attorney general already has on his desk proposed standards that reflect the best thinking and effective practices to end this widespread scourge. There is no need to reinvent the wheel or to delay moving forward."

Areas covered by the commission's proposed standards include: supervision; screening for vulnerability to abuse; medical and mental health services; reporting mechanisms; investigations; staff training; administrative sanctions; internal monitoring; and external audits.