A California Department of Corrections officer looks on as inmates at the… (Justin Sullivan / Getty…)
Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003 hoping to contain a national epidemic. Nearly a decade later, however, the problem apparently persists. The Department of Justice this month finally got around to releasing a 2008 survey in which 1 in 10 state prison inmates reported that they had been sexually assaulted while serving time.
But there is some good news. Last week the Justice Department finalized regulations to address the problem of abuse. And although its new rules do not apply to federal immigration detention facilities, where detainees are just as much in need of protection, the Department of Homeland Security now says that it will move to adopt new regulations to cover those facilities as well.
That's a welcome and long-overdue change. Until recently, Homeland Security took an even more anemic approach to the problem than Justice, adopting standards that often lacked real teeth or exempted facilities from compliance.
Homeland Security officials are now promising to adopt legally enforceable regulations that will require, for example, that inmates be screened to determine whether they've been sexually abused or are sexually abusive. To help prevent sexual assaults by guards, pat-downs will be conducted by people of the same sex as those they are searching. Background checks will be required for new hires to weed out potential problems. We hope the proposed regulations will also guarantee a way for victims to report sexual abuse and get help without fear of retaliation. But above all, these regulations ought to require that every facility and agency that holds immigrants plays by the same rules. That may seem obvious, but until now many facilities that hold immigrants for three days or less have not been held to the same standards.
Surely there will be critics, including the union that represents enforcement agents and guards at these facilities. Its leadership has repeatedly accused the Obama administration of excluding it from developing policies. But in fact the union has been consulted and will be able to provide input during the public comment period. Frankly, preventing rape and assault is not something that should be put up for negotiations. It is a basic human right.
Any regulations are a start, not a panacea. But given that this marks the first time the government has issued national standards to help end sexual abuse in prisons and immigration detention facilities, it is an immeasurable improvement.