With the passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) in 2003, the US Congress recognized that epidemic levels of sexual assault of men and women behind bars, and the government’s failure to provide an effective response, amounted to a violation of inmates’ basic rights and dignity. The landmark law authorized the development of national standards for policies and practices designed to prevent, detect, and respond to sexual violence in correctional facilities, and required states and territories to certify their compliance with those standards.

The Department of Justice reported this week that only two states, New Hampshire and New Jersey, have actually certified compliance with the PREA standards. Another 46 states and territories have submitted “assurances” that they are working towards compliance.  Seven states declined to submit either an assurance or a certification, and five  -- Idaho, Texas, Indiana, Utah and Arizona -- flat out refused to comply with the standards. 

The flat-out refusal to comply is as appalling as it is irresponsible. According to the most recent survey of sexual violence by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an estimated 4 percent of America’s 1.5 million state and federal prisoners and 3.2 percent of its jail inmates reported  experiencing one or more incidents of sexual victimization by another inmate or facility staff in 2011-12. 

Texas, which received a total of more than $3.7 million from the federal government to help it combat prison rape, has some of the worst facilities in the nation for for inmate-on-inmate sexual violence and of staff sexual misconduct. Yet the state’s governor, Rick Perry has called PREA “a counterproductive and unnecessarily cumbersome and costly regulatory mess” and refuses to comply, even though that refusal will deprive the state of 5 percent of its federal prison funding.

I can attest, as a former commissioner on the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, which drafted the standards that were adopted – with modifications – by the Justice Department, that they are cost-effective and feasible, reflect best practices from across the country, and draw on the input of countless stakeholders, including state, federal, and local corrections officials.

The challenge of ending sexual violence behind bars is daunting. But we know it can be done; there are many examples of correctional facilities throughout the country whose policies and practices -- in line with those of PREA -- have kept incidence of rape to a minimum. But it will require strong leaders who are willing commit to the PREA standards for prison rape to become a crime of the past.