Ten years ago today, President George W. Bush signed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), one of the most overdue and sorely needed human-rights laws in recent history. The law, for the first time, formulated a systematic federal response to what was previously the most ignored human-rights problem facing the United States: rape—mostly male inmates raping other male inmates—taking place in American correctional facilities.
Although sexual violence remains too common in prisons and jails, the rape-prevention standards and record-keeping measures implemented under PREA have made a difference. In most of the country, most of the time, prison authorities can’t get away with turning a blind eye towards sexual abuse. Spread of sexually transmitted diseases behind bars has slowed and America’s too-large correctional system has become at least a tad more humane. Thanks to groups like Just Detention International (founded as Stop Prisoner Rape), furthermore, prison-rape survivors and their advocates now have a place at the table when issues of detention get discussed.
All this said, much work remains to be done. PREA has reasonably few real teeth and, as a result, truly awful prisons and jails can still get away with allowing rampant sexual abuse. Cultural attitudes towards prison rape, distressingly, haven’t changed much. One of the least funny crimes imaginable somehow remains an acceptable topic for light humor on Internet message boards and nighttime talk shows.
Still, after ten years PREA can be counted as evidence that smart public policies can do something about problems that most people would rather not think about.