The Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 passed congress last month and is fairly certain to be signed by President Bush. (An earlier version of the bill had a less stirring, but no doubt more realistic, name – the Prison Rape Reduction Act). To some extent, the bill – which allocates $60 million annually to research and discussion of the prison rape problem – is a case of “too little, years late,’” Still, better than nothing. From the Washington Post:
“It’s been a long, strange battle, but I think everyone has come to understand that a prison sentence in the United States should not include rape as added punishment,” said Rep. Frank R. Wolf, (R-Va.), a House co-sponsor of the bill, along with Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.).
The annual study, based on surveys from 10 percent of the nation’s 8,700 correctional institutions, including at least one in every state, will be analyzed by a commission. That panel, whose members have not been named, will establish national standards designed to prevent and prosecute prison rapes.
This will be (as far as I know) the first nationwide, representative study of prison rape. As such, it might add hugely to what we know about this problem. But will knowing more about exactly how many prison rapes happen each year really help prevent rapes, I wonder?
I’m curious as to what the panel’s recommendations will be. I’m not sure that prosecuting prison rapists will necessarily be effective – after all, in the end, all we’re doing is sending them back to prison, where they’ll rape again. But prevention is difficult. For instance, as this FindLaw article points out, the Supreme Court’s 1994 Farmer v. Brennon decision – which established that prisoners could sue prison administrations for allowing rapes to go on – had the unintended effect of encouraging wardens to turn a blind eye to rape (since if they didn’t know, they weren’t responsible).
My instinct is that the entire prison culture needs to be changed – and the way to do that is to hold the wardens of high-rape-incidence prisons responsible, regardless of what they claim to know. I don’t know if the political will exists for that solution, though.