[This appeared in the Washington Post on Fri., June 15, 2012]
Now that the Justice Department has promulgated the final standards to try to eliminate prison rape, we need to make them work. Powerful challenges lie in the realms of perception and practice.
Too many Americans regard the sexual abuse of prisoners as normal and tolerable. Although strong support is voiced for zero-tolerance policies, the fact that many people accept the former view is confirmed by the persistence of prison rape as a subject of humor — online, in film and on late-night TV talk shows. When productive rehabilitation programs are said to be “coddling” prisoners, the opposition often stems from the belief that convicts “deserve what’s coming to them.”
Putting the new standards into effect will require strong efforts to transmit the endorsement of anti-abuse policies by prison system leaders — state corrections commissioners, correctional association officers and unions — to the working-level correctional officers. We know that sexual abuse in prisons has survived some well-meaning programs to try to end it.
Despite the outstanding efforts of the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) to quantify how often sexual attacks occur, the data are incomplete. And given the difficulty in securing honest responses from all concerned, it is unlikely that we will ever get better numbers. But the data we have are striking: The Justice Department suggested last month that the abuse rate could be as high as 10 percent; BJS surveys of current and former prisoners reported the rates at 4.4 and 9.6 percent, respectively. All of this discloses that hundreds of thousands of incarcerated people are subjected to terrible assaults on human dignity.
Endorsement of the goal by almost all of the nation’s correctional leaders, who have not always been given credit for adopting emphatic policies against abuse, has not sufficed. Those engaged in reform of other parts of the justice system, such as police departments, prosecutors’ offices and courts, know that change at the operating level comes slowly. Judges and police chiefs issue orders, but it takes persistent training and constant follow-up to produce measurable improvement in day-to-day behavior.
Calls for more and better training are often derided as palliative. In this instance, however, because cultural change is needed, far more training of correctional officers is vital. The National Institute of Corrections — part of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, itself a unit of the Justice Department — has led the way in generating and delivering better training programs.
Revamping the legions of antiquated prisons and jails across the nation, especially small local jails and lockups, poses another huge obstacle. The United States went on a prison-building spending spree in the last quarter of the 20th century. The time has come to pay the piper by appropriating adequate funds to rebuild older jails and prisons that are not closing because of the decline in the U.S. jail and prison populations.
Technology will play only a minimal role in helping prisons eliminate sexual abuse. Cameras are useful mainly for historical purposes, such as sometimes documenting incidents. Tracking devices such as electronic bracelets will eventually become affordable enough to be used to monitor prisoners and staff.
The greatest impediment to doing away with the culture of sexual abuse in prisons is actually a belief: that it will be simple to achieve. Adopting standards makes sense. Supportive statements by the president, the attorney general, correctional leaders and unions help. But there can be no substitute for three major steps that go beyond any written standards: well-conceived, thorough training at all levels; adequately financed renovation of old prisons and jails that lack effective supervision; and a broad-based campaign to raise public expectations to meet those of Congress when it passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act almost a decade ago.
Richard B. Hoffman was executive director of the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission from 2005 to 2008.