Prison rape isn't a topic that lends itself to public sympathy. Too many Americans believe that whatever happens behind prison walls is part of the price that a convicted criminal must pay.
That attitude has led to tolerance of thousands of sexual assaults each year in federal and state prisons and local jails. According to a U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics survey, 9.6 percent of former prisoners say they were raped at least once while in custody, 5.4 percent say they were sexually assaulted by other inmates, and 5.3 percent say they were raped by a prison guard or other staff member.
In 2003, Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act to stop sexual assaults in prisons, jails, and halfway houses. But the crimes haven't stopped and may have even gotten worse.
The Obama Administration has added teeth to the law by ordering federal, state, and local officials to adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward prison rape or suffer sanctions that affect an institution's bottom line. The Justice Department has issued new regulations designed to reduce the number of rape victims.
Federal prisons are immediately affected by the presidential order. State governors will face a shortfall in federal money for prisons if they can't certify that they've brought down the number of inmate rapes.
If anti-rape standards aren't in place, local jails will lose their accreditation, which affects funding. This puts added responsibility on corrections leaders of to make sure they are in compliance.
The Department of Homeland Security, which runs immigrant detention facilities, must comply with similar rules in the coming year. Advocates complain that the department's rules aren't identical to those for federal prisons.
Still, there is no doubt that the days of prison officials looking the other way while inmates are raped are over. It's time the nation's prisons abandon the barbaric practice of doing nothing.