One in 10 Prisoners Reports Sexual Assault
May 17, 2012
The prison rape standards offer a practical, feasible roadmap for officials on how to end the epidemic of prison rape. They may not be perfect, but they are far better than might have been expected given the staunch opposition in some correctional quarters to changing the way they do business. The Justice Department leaves no doubt that the old ways do not and cannot suffice.
Jamie Fellner, senior adviser to the US Program and a former commissioner on the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission

(New York) – The long awaited national prison rape elimination standards issued on May 17, 2012 by the Justice Department, if fully implemented, may end widespread prison rape in the United States, Human Rights Watch said today. The standards provide detailed guidance to federal, state, and local officials on how to prevent, detect, and respond to sexual abuse in their confinement facilities.

Congress mandated the development of national standards in the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), passed unanimously in 2003. The law called for the creation of a National Prison Rape Elimination Commission to prepare an analysis of the causes and consequences of prison rape and to propose national standards to the attorney general, which it did in June 2009. The standards released on May 17 draw heavily on the commission’s work and reflect Congress’ goal of protecting every man, woman, and child in confinement with an effective, zero-tolerance policy toward sexual abuse.

“The prison rape standards offer a practical, feasible roadmap for officials on how to end the epidemic of prison rape,” said Jamie Fellner, senior adviser to the US Program of Human Rights Watch and a former commissioner on the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission. “They may not be perfect, but they are far better than might have been expected given the staunch opposition in some correctional quarters to changing the way they do business. The Justice Department leaves no doubt that the old ways do not and cannot suffice.”

The standards are immediately binding on Justice Department facilities, such as those operated by the Bureau of Prisons. A presidential memorandum also issued on May 17 clarifies that other federal agencies operating confinement facilities are also bound by PREA and directs those agencies to work with the attorney general to determine what is necessary to comply. This requirement is most noteworthy with regard to Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which confines immigration detainees.

“Given the inexplicable reticence of Homeland Security to comply with PREA, we have to hope that the attorney general will insist that it develop standards as good as or better than those issued today,” Fellner said. “Congress never intended for immigration detainees to find themselves with fewer protections against sexual abuse than people in state prisons or jails.”

While PREA does not require states to adopt the Justice Department standards, states that do not will lose some of their federal prison funding. More important, it will be hard for agencies to show they are committed to protecting the youth and adults in their custody if they do not adopt the standards, Human Rights Watch said.

A report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) on sexual victimization also released on May 17 underscores the ongoing and urgent need to protect inmates from sexual abuse. According to the BJS report, “Sexual Victimization Reported by Former State Prisoners, 2008,”an estimated one in ten former state adult prisoners reported that they were sexually victimized by staff or other prisoners during confinement. Most of the victims of staff sexual abuse (86 percent) and over half of the victims of inmate-on-inmate abuse (58 percent) reported being victimized multiple times.

The new national standards apply to adult prisons and jails, lockups (short-term holding cells), community confinement facilities (such as halfway homes or drug rehabilitation centers), and juvenile facilities.

The standards require facilities, for example, to:

  • develop and use their best efforts to implement plans to provide adequate staffing levels to protect inmates against abuse;
  • train employees to  prevent sexual abuse;
  • thoroughly investigate all reports of sexual misconduct by inmates or staff;
  • create multiple avenues for inmates to privately report sexual abuse;
  • screen inmates for prior sexual victimization or abusive conduct and use this information   when making housing and programming assignments;
  • prohibit cross-gender pat searches of females by male staff;
  • separate inmates under 18 in adult facilities from adult inmates;
  • offer ongoing medical and mental health evaluation and treatment, as well as access to outside rape counseling, for inmates who have been victimized; and
  • publish sexual abuse statistics annually for each facility, and audit each facility at least once every three years.


Human Rights Watch began working on sexual abuse in US prisons more than 16 years ago. It was deeply involved in the effort to secure passage of PREA.

“Now that we have the standards, it is crucial for everyone—including agencies, advocacy organizations, and other public groups and individuals—to ensure that they become a living reality in the country’s confinement facilities, and not mere words on paper,” Fellner said.  “Some agencies may complain it will be costly to implement the standards. But if a jurisdiction cannot afford to protect its prisoners and detainees from rape, it should reduce the number of people in custody to a level at which it can protect them.”