Ten years ago today, President George W. Bush signed into law the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), and the United States became the first country to officially commit to ending sexual assault behind bars.
It's a good day to remember Rodney Hulin, a physically slight teenager who was serving time for arson in a Texas prison. Repeatedly sodomized and beaten by older inmates, he killed himself in 1996 after prison officials refused to protect him. None of the rapists were ever punished. Rodney’s story was one of many accounts of brutal sexual violence and impunity that helped galvanize political momentum behind PREA.
In passing this law—on a unanimous vote—Congress belatedly acknowledged what researchers had long been insisting: that sexual abuse of inmates by other inmates and by correctional staff was rampant in U.S. prisons.
PREA changed how Americans thought about prison rape. What had been mainly a bad punchline ("Don't pick up the soap in the showers") came to be seen as a human rights violation that public officials have a duty to prevent. “Zero tolerance” toward prison rape is now national policy.
I served on the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, created by PREA to study prison rape and develop standards to prevent and investigate it as well as punish the offenders. The Department of Justice used the commission's work as the basis for the national standards for prisons, jails, and other correctional facilities.
The commission’s work built on a core realization behind PREA: that pervasive sexual violence in prison happens because of poor management, bad policies, and a lack of commitment to preventing it. The history of prison rape is one of officials who refused to admit that the problem existed or tolerated it or thought nothing could be done to stop it. All too often, prison authorities ignored inmates who reported sexual abuse or failed to protect them from retaliation; investigations were shoddy, and punishment was negligible.
The flipside of this realization is that prison rape can be prevented if officials take the right steps. And so the national PREA standards lay out concrete, practical, and cost-effective procedures for officials to follow. Requirements for publication of sexual abuse data and periodic audits will help the public track progress and hold authorities accountable for failures. And while PREA doesn't require states to adopt the Justice Department standards, it holds back some federal dollars from those that don't.
No one should underestimate how hard it will be to eliminate prison rape. The most recent national survey of inmates by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics reveals that in 2011–12, an estimated 4 percent of state and federal prison inmates and 3.2 percent of jail inmates reported experiencing one or more incidents of sexual abuse within the past 12 months, as did almost one in 10 youths in juvenile facilities. Behind the statistics, of course, are harrowing individual stories of violence, injury, fear, pain, humiliation, and anger.
National PREA standards are essential and can encourage reform, but they aren’t a substitute for good leadership or full commitment up and down the ranks in our correctional facilities.
PREA came too late for Rodney Hulin. But as prison officials begin to implement the act’s standards, I am hopeful that a new way of managing prisons takes hold that keeps prisoners safe. Zero tolerance is a promise worthy of national pride—and it's a promise worth keeping.