Policing prisons

Prison rape is an uncomfortable subject rarely covered in newspapers, a laugh line on late-night television. But the reality is that rape in our prisons is a national scandal. A study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2007 found that more than 60,000 adult inmates and -- even worse -- 1 in 8 juveniles in custody had been sexually assaulted in the previous year.

Nearly a year ago, the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission issued a strong report on the scope of the problem and what must be done to address it. But for its proposed reforms to be implemented, we must overcome the inertia and resistance to change within our prison system. Efforts to set standards for prison officials and establish the means to hold them accountable for ending prison rape remain bottled up in the Justice Department bureaucracy.

Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. is committed to ending prison rape. But instead of taking immediate action, he is allowing bureaucrats to spend another year redoing the work already completed by the Prison Rape Commission. Meanwhile, more adults and juveniles in our prisons will be sexually assaulted.

We urge Holder to change course. He should review the proposed standards and then implement them unless he finds a compelling reason to alter them. Holder has the authority to move the nation’s prisons out of the dark ages where sexual assaults are condoned, and to a new policy of zero tolerance for sexual violence.

The two of us come from very different backgrounds. One of us -- Connie Rice -- is a civil rights attorney who has worked closely with liberal allies in the Democratic Party. The other -- Pat Nolan -- is a former Republican leader in the California Assembly with roots in conservative politics. But we both believe the prison system is broken. And both of us are deeply troubled that men, women and children in the state’s custody are not being protected.


We are not the only political odd couple on this issue. It was the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Democrat, and Sen. Jeff Sessions, a Republican, who jointly co-sponsored the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which passed unanimously and was signed by President George W. Bush in 2003. That legislation established the Prison Rape Commission and required the report issued last year.

But the commission’s report was intended only as a first step. We now need to take the actions proposed in the report and hold prison officials accountable for results.

The commission took several years to do its work, holding hearings across the country and listening to hundreds of experts and corrections officials. It heard testimony from victims who had been left vulnerable to predators and who then were left nearly helpless to recover from brutal attacks. Dedicated corrections officials testified about how they tried to overcome systemic problems. The commission distilled these real-life experiences of tragedy and triumph into recommendations.

The standards proposed by the commission are straightforward. They require, for example, assessing which inmates are more vulnerable to being raped, and they call for isolating likely predators. Because guards also commit sexual assaults, the report called for pat-downs and strip searches to be conducted by an officer of the same sex, except in exigent circumstances. It also called for each rape be treated as a crime. You would think prison administrators would not have to be told such a thing.

Both of us know from experience that changing entrenched bureaucracies is never easy. Many prison officials who originally denied that rapes in prisons were occurring now minimize the problem. And they exaggerate the costs of prevention. Basically, they do not want standards that will hold them accountable. True to formula, they do not oppose the proposed standards outright but want to water them down. Prison bureaucrats have called for more hearings and studies to cover the same ground.

The Prison Rape Elimination Act statute did not put bureaucrats at the Justice Department in charge of developing standards because Congress did not trust them to do so. And for good reason: The Justice Department for years pretended that prison rape was a myth. That’s why Congress made the attorney general, not these bureaucrats, responsible for reviewing and adopting the standards.

It is time for the nation’s chief law enforcement officer to assume the role Congress asked him to take on and send a message that prison rape will no longer be tolerated.

Connie Rice is a civil rights attorney in Los Angeles. Pat Nolan is vice president of the group Prison Fellowship and served on the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission.