Prison reform is a necessary component of the Christian command to protect the defenseless, according to faith leaders from Prison Fellowship and the National Association of Evangelicals. Critics say recent attempts at reform by the Justice Department do not go far enough to address the problem of sexual abuse in the U.S. correctional system.
A panel of experts, along with a diverse group of supporters that includes the American Civil Liberties Union, Church of Scientology, and George Soros's Open Society Institute, are protesting the Justice Department's new prison rape prevention standards, which will take effect April 4.
The new standards will allow already-troubled prisons to police themselves and do not require any enforcement mechanism, critics say. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported in August 2010 that 88,500 "incidents of sexual victimization" occurred in U.S. prisons over a 12 month period, up from about 60,500 the year before. That breaks down to more than 240 sexual assaults a day of inmates in every level of the federal correctional system.
The prison culture does not welcome transparency, according to Pat Nolan, vice president of the prison outreach organization Prison Fellowship and a member of the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission. The commission was federally appointed in 2003, as part of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), to provide recommendations to the Attorney General meant to improve standards guarding against the sexual assault of prisoners in the U.S.
"It's a culture we need to change," Nolan said. "It's absolutely a barrier to presenting the gospel, and also in a way it's a test of our credibility. If all we do is hand them tracts but turn a blind eye to their suffering, that's not a very good witness."
Keith DeBlasio, a former inmate who testified of his sexual assault in prison prior to the passage of PREA, said at a press conference on Tuesday that the administration is "backpedaling" on very important reforms.
"I knew that I was not being protected [in prison]. And therefore, the sexual assault went on for almost a month," DeBlasio said of his experience. "Because of this I'm now HIV positive. I went in with an interstate trafficking of forged securities and fraud charge, a five year sentence at a minimum security institution, and left with a life sentence."
Nolan said that it's a blot on our nation's character to allow abuse of any prisoner under the authority of a government institution to continue. "No sentence includes being raped," Nolan said. "Even without the Prison Rape Elimination Act, prisons have a duty to protect inmates from being raped."
Nolan said that the church and faith communities, among them Prison Fellowship, rallied behind the push for legislation addressing the problem. In 2003, then-President George W. Bush signed the PREA into law after it passed with unanimous consent by the Senate and without objection in the House. At the time, there was a bipartisan push by Congress for stronger language, ultimately turning what was introduced as the Prison Rape Reduction Act into an act meant to eliminate prison rape.
The commission appointed by the PREA to investigate found that "prison rape is not inevitable," according to the testimony of Judge Reggie B. Walton, chair of the commission. After visiting prisons and holding hearings with experts across the country, the commission delivered recommendations addressing the problem to the Judiciary in 2009.
The seven active members of the former commission, now defunct since completing its report, have come together to protest what they call a misinterpretation and weakening of their recommendations for stopping rampant sexual assault in prisons. The rules that Attorney General Eric Holder plans to implement also contradict the commission's recommendations by allowing cross-gender pat-downs and exempting immigration prisons from the rules.