Prison in America

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Sexual assault is a major issue in the U.S. prison system. Despite stringent federal laws in place to tackle the issue, one loophole allows the problem to persist.

In 2018 there were nearly 28,000 allegations of sexual assault/misconduct reported within U.S. prisons. However, given that reporting is driven down due to fear of retaliation or disbelief, the actual number is likely far higher. Prison power dynamics foster an environment of fear and domination, allowing many predators to act with immunity, while prison administration indifferently looks on. Do we need new laws to fix this issue? No! The laws are already in place; the problem is with enforcement.

The Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 provides the framework for tackling the issue of sexual assault in the U.S. prison system. The PREA created national standards for prisons, initiated mass research into the previously ill-researched topic, and amidst other things, launched an important audit system that conditions federal grants to prisons based on their adherence to PREA standards. These standards include integrity and lack of retaliation in the reporting process, training for prison employees, disciplinary actions for predators, providing medical care to incarcerated survivors, etc. The audit system, initiated in 2014, holds states accountable for bringing their respective prison systems in line with these standards. Since the first round of audits occurred, the number of states and territories in compliance with PREA standards has risen from two in 2014 to twenty-one in 2020. However, there are twenty-nine states and territories that are considered to be in “assurance.” Assurance is a loophole that allows states to claim that they are working towards adhering to PREA standards, even though they are not compliant. As a result, they are allowed to maintain full funding. The problem with assurance is that it allows states, such as California, Colorado, etc., which have never left the “assurance” category, to continually skirt PREA standards without any accountability. Henceforth, incarcerated people in “assurance” jurisdictions, including West Virginia, live in prisons that aren’t up to the standards for mitigating sexual assault/misconduct.

Some would argue that we shouldn’t care about sexual assault within the prison system, or worse, that prisoners, by virtue of their incarcerated status, deserve to be assaulted. However, the scourge of sexual assault within U.S. prisons is both a constitutional issue, and a public safety issue. Sexual assault in U.S. prisons constitute cruel and unusual punishment, violating the 8th Amendment of the Constitution. Sexual assault/misconduct also fosters a hostile culture within prisons that destroys any rehabilitative nature for those assaulted and exacerbates health issues.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The injustice of sexual assault/misconduct occurring within the prison system is unconstitutional and harmful to society. In order to get prison systems to take the necessary steps to solve this issue, we must restrict the loophole that allows them to evade it.