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Just Detention International Celebrates the 20th Anniversary of the Prison Rape Elimination Act

  • September 4, 2023

Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., September 4, 2023 —Los Angeles and Washington D.C., Sept 4, 2023 — Just Detention International celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, the landmark law that sparked a sea change in how corrections agencies handle sexual abuse within their facilities. The legislation has also deepened our understanding of rape in detention, helping to dismantle the myth that this abuse is an inevitable fact of prison life.

“PREA transformed how we, as a nation, address sexual abuse in detention,” said Linda McFarlane, Executive Director of Just Detention International. “Prior to the law, corrections officials tended to dismiss prisoner rape. Many claimed either that it was a rare problem — the actions of a few “bad apples” — or simply an unfortunate part of life in detention that couldn’t be stopped even if we tried. PREA brought into focus the magnitude of the crisis and gave prisons and jails a blueprint to protect the safety of those in their care. It affirmed, in plain language, that incarcerated people have the same right to safety and dignity as anyone else.”

PREA was signed into law on September 4, 2003, after passing both houses of Congress unanimously. Its passage set in motion an unprecedented effort to examine the problem of rape in detention facilities. Starting in 2004, the government began carrying out large-scale surveys of incarcerated people’s experiences with sexual abuse — the only studies of their kind in the United States, and the world. Since then, hundreds of thousands of incarcerated adults and children have participated in these surveys. Their responses revealed corrections agencies’ systemic failure to protect people in their care, especially those who have a mental illness, who have survived prior abuse, and who are LGBTQI.

The law’s crowning accomplishment was the release of national standards mandating the steps detention facilities must take to prevent, detect and respond to sexual abuse. Drawing on PREA-mandated data collection, the standards aimed to revamp poor practices — such as weak or nonexistent reporting mechanisms — that were putting people at risk. While the standards’ implementation has been uneven nationwide, the impact of these rules has been undeniable. Corrections agencies across the country have enacted policies aimed at keeping people safe and trained their staff on their responsibilities to do so. Hundreds of thousands of incarcerated people are educated each year about their right to be safe and what to do if they aren’t. Many incarcerated survivors are now able to speak confidentially with rape crisis counselors.

PREA was championed by JDI and a diverse coalition of advocates, led by people who themselves had experienced sexual abuse in detention. Accounts from survivors like Tom Cahill — JDI’s former president, who passed away in 2021 — resonated with key policymakers on Capitol Hill. PREA enjoyed bipartisan support — its sponsors were Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Frank Wolf (D-VA, ret.) in the House, and the late Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Jeff Sessions (R-AL, ret.) in the Senate — demonstrating that the commitment to stopping prisoner rape transcends party lines. PREA’s legal foundation rested on the heroic efforts of Dee Farmer, a transgender woman who sued federal prison officials for failing to protect her from sexual assaults in a men’s prison. Farmer’s case made it to the Supreme Court, and the resulting decision in Farmer vs. Brennan established a precedent that paved the way for PREA.

“PREA is a monumental accomplishment, and I’m proud that the law is part of Farmer’s legacy,” said Farmer, who today is a legal consultant and a member of JDI’s Survivor Council. “Incarcerated people have always been on at the forefront of the fight for human rights and individual dignity. Farmer and PREA are milestones on the path to making sure that no one ever is abused simply because they are incarcerated.”

“The passage of PREA is a testament to the fearlessness and movement-building acumen of survivors of rape and torture in American prisons,” said McFarlane. “Their determination to speak out — despite great risks and intense social stigma — put prisoner rape on the national agenda. Tom Cahill and Dee Farmer, among many other currently and formerly incarcerated survivors and their allies, deserve wide recognition for PREA, and for advancing the rights of incarcerated people.”

While PREA has led to undeniable contributions to the human rights of people in detention, the law’s legacy is incomplete. Today, prisoner rape remains widespread, and — in spite of increases in support services available inside detention facilities — the majority of incarcerated survivors don’t get the help they deserve. Earlier this year, the Senate introduced the Sexual Abuse Services in Detention Act, which would inject vital funding for emotional support services behind bars.

“Sexual abuse in detention is an appalling crime today, just as it was 20 years ago. It’s also completely preventable. With renewed commitment to PREA, including by passing SASIDA, we can finish the job and end prisoner rape, once and for all,” said McFarlane.


Just Detention International is a health and human rights organization that seeks to end sexual abuse in all forms of detention.