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Nudging Holder on Prison Rape Reform

It was a bill so uncontroversial that it sailed through both the House and Senate without a single objection before George W. Bush made it law with the stroke of his pen. But this year, a central provision of the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act — the establishment of national standards designed to prevent prison rapes — is being threatened by the very folks the bill is largely designed to rein in: prison officials themselves.

Although a set of proposed standards was issued last June — and though the Justice Department opened a two-month public comment period on those guidelines in March — U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told House lawmakers last month that he won’t be meeting the legal deadline for finalizing the rules.

Why? Well, it’s largely because the law stipulates that the new standards can’t “impose substantial additional costs” on the prisons, which the prison lobby claims would be the case with the current proposal. As a result, the Justice Department has commissioned a cost analysis, which relies largely on estimates crunched by the prisons themselves. The cost study will delay the process indefinitely.

“We want to make sure that we get this right,” Holder said in March, “and also follow the dictates of the statute, which says change this situation, make sure that you eliminate — to the extent that you can — sexual predator and predator activity in prisons, but not increase the amount of money that any local jurisdiction has to spend in order to do that. … When I speak to wardens, when I speak to people who run local jails, when I speak to people who run state facilities, they look at me and they say, ‘Eric, how are we supposed to do this? If we are going to segregate people, build new facilities, do training, how are we supposed to do this?’”

Lovisa Stannow, executive director of Justice Detention International, a human rights group that supports quick adoption of the standards, has argued that cost considerations shouldn’t outweigh efforts to protect prisoners from sexual predation.

“Prison officials claim that it will be too expensive to implement [the standards] — too expensive to prevent staff from raping detainees,” Stannow wrote in the Huffington Post recently.

Furthermore, Stannow argues, the cost analyses being considered ignore the cost benefits that would result if the number of prison rapes were reduced. Medical costs could be cut, she argues, as well as the legal expenses resulting from prisoner lawsuits.

“These factors are not included in the Department of Justice cost study,” Stannow wrote in a separate piece last month, “but Attorney General Holder must take them into account.”

Justice Detention International is circulating a petition designed to nudge Holder to codify the national standards as quickly as possible.

“The standards under review have the potential to become the most important tool so far in the effort to end this terrible abuse,” the petition reads. “But every day that we don’t have these measures in place, hundreds of men, women, and children will be raped behind bars — even though we know how to keep them safe.”

A DOJ spokesperson said Friday that there’s no timeline set for finalizing the guidelines.

Meanwhile, Holder insists that the DOJ is committed to the reforms. “The fact that we will not make that deadline,” he said in March, “is not in anyway an indication this is not a problem that we take seriously.”

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