Prison Rape Standards Still Waiting for Approval

by Eli Lehrer

To almost nobody’s surprise, Attorney General Eric Holder has delayed the adoption of congressionally mandated standards to prevent sexual abuse behind bars. The standards, already long overdue, are exceptionally modest. They simply require detention facilities to do the things — monitor inmates closely, separate the most vulnerable — that just about everyone who works in corrections agrees represent best practices anyway.

But corrections professionals have asked for revisions on the basis of expense (yes, the standards will cost money to implement) and the theoretical difficulty of implementing them in every detail (although well-run prisons use them already). But these objections are, at least sometimes, a cover for deeper problems. Particularly in the most chaotic prisons, turning a blind eye towards sexual abuse helps keep tensions between racial-supremacist gangs under control. In juvenile facilities, furthermore, a growing body of evidence of guards abusing their charges has some guards and administrators rightly nervous that tougher standards will reveal deeper problems. Finally, society’s refusal to take sexual abuse in detention seriously, combined with the utterly distasteful nature of the problem, makes it something that many would prefer to sweep under the rug. The slow pace of the process so far — for example, even though nobody openly opposes the idea of standards, getting Congress to approve exceedingly modest legislation took almost two years of work — shows that many would prefer that it remain sub rosa.

Unpleasant as it may be, however, sexual abuse in houses of detention is a serious social problem. Holder has a decent set of standards in front of him. He should end the delays and implement them.

Eli Lehrer is national director of the Center on Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate at the Heartland Institute.