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US: Prevent Prison Rape

National Commission Releases Report and Standards

NEW YORK - The new report and standards on prison rape - released today by the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission - challenge prison officials to end this devastating and all too prevalent human rights violation, Human Rights Watch said. Although a growing number of prison authorities are trying to curb sexual violence and hold perpetrators accountable, the commission report makes clear that tens of thousands of prisoners are still raped each year by staff and by other prisoners because officials have not instituted basic measures to protect them. 

The commission was created under the National Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 (PREA), which Human Rights Watch research on prison sexual violence helped bring about. Jamie Fellner, senior counsel for the US Program of Human Rights Watch, is one of its eight members. Reflecting extensive consultation with many stakeholders - including survivors of prison abuse, corrections officials, researchers, and advocates - the commission insists that rape is not inevitable behind bars.

"Rape is all too predictable when prison authorities don't pay attention or don't care," said Fellner. "The history of prison rape is a history of officials who denied the problem existed, tolerated it, or thought nothing could be done to stop it. The commission's work makes clear that such attitudes should have no place in the American prison system."

Under the terms of the legislation, the attorney general of the United States will decide whether to adopt the standards set out in the report. If he does, they will become mandatory for federal prisons, and states that do not adopt them will lose some of their federal prison funding. Courts will no doubt use the standards as a benchmark for determining whether prison officials have satisfied their constitutional obligations to protect prisoners.


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"Attorney General Eric Holder can single-handedly make a stunning contribution to the safety of US prisons," said Fellner. "By adopting these standards, he can start the ball rolling to make widespread prison rape a thing of the past."

In groundbreaking reports, Human Rights Watch documented the failure of correctional leaders to take prison rape seriously. Complaints of rape were not investigated; victims who reported rape often suffered retaliation by the perpetrators. Staff who abused inmates were rarely, if ever, fired. Inmates who sought protection from brutal rape by other inmates confronted indifference and sometimes even staff complicity. The reports, "All too Familiar: Sexual Abuse of Women in US State Prisons" and "No Escape: Male Rape in US Prisons," helped spur the political momentum to protect inmates which culminated in the 2003 legislation.

The commission's proposed standards are designed to prevent, investigate, and punish prison rape in all federal, state, and local confinement facilities - including prisons, private prisons, jails, lockups, juvenile facilities, immigration detention facilities, and community corrections settings. They take into account the special vulnerabilities of certain prisoners, including the young, immigrants, people perceived to be gay or transgender, and those who are slight of stature or new to incarceration. Areas covered by the standards include supervision, inmate screening for vulnerability to abuse, medical and mental health services, reporting mechanisms, investigations, staff training, administrative sanctions, internal monitoring, and external audits.

"Prisoners will only be safe if they are confined in facilities whose officials have instituted zero-tolerance policies and are committed to rigorous internal monitoring and external oversight," said David Fathi, director of the US Program at Human Rights Watch. "The standards provide a practical, feasible roadmap. All that is needed now is the commitment to follow it."


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Human Rights Watch is one of the world's leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. By focusing international attention where human rights are violated, we give voice to the oppressed and hold oppressors accountable for their crimes. Our rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse. For 30 years, Human Rights Watch has worked tenaciously to lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and has fought to bring greater justice and security to people around the world.

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