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Judge Reggie Walton (AP/Photo by Evan Vucci)

Not enough protection

Prisons | The commission to prevent rape in U.S. prisons says the Justice Department has weakened its standards

WASHINGTON-An estimated 60,500 inmates in U.S. prisons are sexually assaulted every year, according to the Justice Department, or one in 20 inmates. Among juveniles, the numbers are worse: One in eight are victims of sexual assault while incarcerated. The numbers have expanded rapidly over the last decade as the U.S. prison population has grown.

The Justice Department has issued new rape prevention standards, which will take effect April 4. This action comes eight years after Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which called for new standards for prisons that would cut down on sexual assaults. These new standards are based on the recommendations of the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, which the 2003 law created to recommend prison reforms. The commission called for basic changes to prison policies like forbidding cross-gender strip searches or the hiring of prison guards with histories of abuse, as well as more extensive reforms like investigating sexual assault in prison like a crime. Sexual aggressors are prison personnel almost as often as they are prisoners.

The commission, though now defunct, is criticizing the Justice Department for weakening its proposals. The new standards will "undermine our good efforts to address this problem," said federal Judge Reggie Walton, who chaired the commission. The commission's guidelines can't be used "piecemeal," he said, but are "holistic."

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Last year, California, Oregon, and Michigan began to implement the commission's standards in full on their own. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has told the commissioners that the Justice Department will only implement certain guidelines because some of the commission's recommendations would be too costly.

"We think we've been very reasonable," said Pat Nolan of Prison Fellowship, who was a member of the commission.

Walton said the commission took cost into account when it made its recommendations, and that the DOJ's cost analysis may not be accurate. But, he added, "it's inevitable that there's going to have to be some increased cost." What can't be measured fully, he said, are the benefits of preventing rape, in terms of decreasing incidents of HIV/AIDS infections and ensuring prisoners reenter society as healthy, whole individuals.

Nolan noted that the Justice Department didn't include the cost of settling prison sexual assault cases in its calculations-the federal government shelled out $100 million in a recent case in Michigan brought by a number of female inmates. "That would have paid for a lot of reforms," Nolan said.

The new DOJ standards do prohibit cross-gender strip searches and require background checks for prison hires. It will be up to prisons to provide more avenues for prisoners to report abuse. But the DOJ will still allow cross-gender pat-down searches. It won't require prisons to receive independent audits, which the commission had recommended because "self-policing" has been ineffective. Also, the DOJ exempted its immigration prisons from the standards. "We're not particularly sure why," said Walton. "We believe they should be protected while they're there."

Holder was supposed to have issued the new standards last June, and Nolan noted that each day that passes with laxer rules "means more human suffering."

Walton served on the Washington, D.C., Superior Court with Holder. "I know he does care about the problem," he said. "Why it's taken so long, I don't know."

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emzleb.

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