Prison Rape: Still a Problem. Government: Still Not All That Concerned About It.


In the New York Review of Books, David Kaiser and Lovisa Stannow review several recent government studies on prison rape and conclude that there doesn't seem to be much interest even in discovering the true extent of the problem, much less doing anything about it.

[E]ven when authorities confirmed that corrections staff had sexually abused inmates in their care, only 42 percent of those officers had their cases referred to prosecution; only 23 percent were arrested, and only 3 percent charged, indicted, or convicted. Fifteen percent were actually allowed to keep their jobs.

How many people are really victimized every year? Recent BJS studies using a "snapshot" technique have found that, of those incarcerated on the days the surveys were administered, about 90,000 had been abused in the previous year, but as we have argued previously,2 those numbers were also misleadingly low. Finally, in January, the Justice Department published its first plausible estimates. In 2008, it now says, more than 216,600 people were sexually abused in prisons and jails and, in the case of at least 17,100 of them, in juvenile detention. Overall, that's almost six hundred people a day—twenty-five an hour.

Those figures also only count victims, not actual assaults. So if one person is repeatedly raped, it only counts once.

As part of the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, Congress created a commission to study how to best address and prevent prison rape. In a wonderful display of a government commission acting with expediency to address an horrific and ongoing problem, that commission delivered its report . . . in June 2009. The law then required the Justice Department to issue recommendations based on the commission's report within 12 months. DOJ still hasn't delivered, and isn't expected to until the end of this year—at the earliest. In its preliminary responses, the DOJ has watered down most of the commission's recommendations. Even after all this is done, the recommendations are still just recommendations. There is unlikely to be any enforcement mechanism.

So as we approach eight years since Congress declared prison rape an urgent problem worthy of immediate government attention, we have a report from a committee, from which the Justice Department may—sometime in the next year—make some watered-down recommendations, all of which are unlikely come with any significant enforcement mechanism.

But don't mistake any of this to conclude that government isn't serious about prison rape. Really, they're quite serious. Just ask them.