President George W. Bush should sign into law the Prison Rape Elimination of Act of 2003, Human Rights Watch said today. The legislation, which passed Congress unanimously on Friday, seeks to protect federal, state, and local prisoners from rape and sexual assault.
In 2001, Human Rights Watch published a comprehensive report, No Escape documenting the prevalence and devastating impact of male rape in U.S. prisons and the failure of prison officials to act decisively to prevent it. The report, which was widely covered in the media, drew national attention to a widespread abuse that had previously been either ignored or treated as fodder for bad jokes.
"For far too long the United States has ignored the brutality of prison rape," said Jamie Fellner, director of Human Rights Watch's U.S. Program. "Sexual violence - indeed, any violence - should not be part of anyone's prison sentence. This legislation puts prison staff on notice that they can no longer turn a blind eye to rape."
The Prison Rape Elimination Act would initiate a series of efforts to track and curtail the incidence of rape in prisons and jails. The legislation requires the collection of national statistics on the prevalence and effects of rape; directs the Department of Justice to provide training and technical assistance to federal, state and local officials responsible for addressing prison rape; authorizes federal grants to support state and local programs to prevent and punish prison rape; and provides for the reduction of federal prison funding for states that do not control prison rape. The National Prison Rape Reduction Commission, a federal body created by the legislation, will spearhead the creation of a comprehensive report on the subject and issue recommendations to be used by the Attorney General in generating national standards to detect, prevent, and punish prison rape.
"The unanimous passage of this bill is an extraordinary accomplishment," said Fellner. "If implemented fully and effectively, it will be a first step towards ensuring that prison sentences are not sentences to sexual violence and abuse."
The Prison Rape Elimination Act reflects the efforts of a broad and diverse legislative coalition. Congressional sponsors of the legislation held hearings on prison rape and drew extensively on No Escape in arguing for the need for a federal response.
Victims of prison rape may suffer enormous psychological and physical injury. The negative impact of sexual abuse in prisons is compounded by the increased risk of transmission for HIV, hepatitis, and other sexually transmitted diseases. In the past, correctional authorities have done little to prevent rape from happening, to protect the victims, and to punish those responsible.
If implemented effectively, the Prison Rape Elimination Act will catalyze nationwide efforts to eliminate prison rape by inmates and correctional staff. It signals renewed Congressional concern about the conditions under which more than two million individuals are confined.