Civil Liberties

Scars Behind Bars

The prison rape problem


About 60,000 state and federal prisoners were victims of sexual assault in 2007, according to a June report from the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission. The precise numbers are debatable, but no one disputes that prisoners face a much higher risk of rape than free citizens.

"Sexual abuse," the commissioners wrote, "makes correctional environments more dangerous for staff as well as prisoners, consumes scarce resources, and undermines rehabilitation. It also carries the potential to devastate the lives of victims." The commission suggested several ways to reduce the problem, including more careful investigations of prisoner complaints, legal changes making it easier for abused prisoners to sue negligent authorities, and segregation of populations at greater risk for abuse, such as sex offenders and minors.

The Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, which created the commission, requires the attorney general to implement some kind of rape-reducing reforms within a year of the report. A bill that would have made it easier for raped (and otherwise abused) prisoners to sue for redress—the Prison Abuse Remedies Act, sponsored by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.)—died in committee last year.