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The Landmark Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) Turns Ten

  • September 4, 2013

Advocates, prisoner rape survivors, and political leaders celebrate PREA as a human rights milestone

Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., September 4, 2013 – Today marks the ten-year anniversary of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), the first federal civil law to address sexual abuse in detention. PREA has sparked a dramatic culture change within U.S. prisons and jails, laying the groundwork for ending sexual violence behind bars.

The pivotal law – signed by President George W. Bush on September 4, 2003 – affirms that sexual abuse in detention constitutes a human rights crisis. PREA mandated unprecedented national inmate surveys to study the problem. These surveys, in which hundreds of thousands of inmates have participated anonymously, have showed clearly that prisoner rape pervades detention facilities nationwide – and that it is preventable. PREA’s signature accomplishment so far is the creation of national standards that spell out what detention facilities must do to prevent and respond to sexual abuse. The PREA standards, released last year by the Department of Justice, went into effect last month at state prisons, county jails, youth facilities, police lockups, and community corrections facilities.

“PREA stands today as one of the most significant human rights victories in modern U.S. history,” said Lovisa Stannow, JDI’s Executive Director. “The law acknowledged that prisoner rape constitutes a crisis – something many people denied at the time – and that the government has a duty to end this violence. Ten years later, PREA’s transformative impact is undeniable. Corrections facilities are more transparent, and are adopting policies and practices that were simply unheard of before PREA.”

PREA’s passage was the direct result of advocacy by prisoner rape survivors. One of the law’s most vocal champions was Tom Cahill, JDI’s former President and the survivor of a brutal gang rape in a Texas jail in 1968. Along with a group of other survivors, Cahill demanded government action to stop this abuse. Their efforts were noticed by political leaders, including Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA) and the late Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA). They joined forces with Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) as PREA’s original sponsors. PREA enjoyed broad bipartisan support, and was passed unanimously by Congress. It was signed into law by President Bush at an Oval Office ceremony attended by, among others, Cahill and Hope Hernandez, another survivor of prisoner rape.

“The crisis of prisoner rape isn’t over. As the most recent Bureau of Justice Statistics study showed, every year roughly 200,000 people are still sexually abused in U.S. prisons, jails, and youth facilities,” said Stannow. “But thanks to PREA – and to the enormously courageous work of dozens of prisoner rape survivors – we’re on the road to ending this violence, once and for all.”

Prisoner rape survivors, politicians, and leading advocates join JDI in commemorating PREA’s anniversary.

In a congratulatory letter to a member of the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission who was present in the Oval Office when he signed the Act, President Bush wrote, “Thank you for all you did to make sure our justice system is safe and fair.”

JDI Survivor Council member Troy Isaac, who endured many years of sexual abuse in California detention facilities, beginning at age 12, said, “I was first put in juvenile hall in 1985, so PREA came too late to help me. But I want to make sure that no one else ever has to suffer like I did. I’m grateful for PREA, because it’s helping to make that goal a reality.”

JDI Survivor Council and Board member Cecilia Chung, a transgender woman who testified before the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, said, “I’ve never doubted that prisoner rape is preventable. I only doubted whether our government was willing to do what was necessary to stop it. Thanks to a group of committed survivors, the government found the courage to pass PREA.”

Dr. Reginald “Reggie” Wilkinson, former Director of the Ohio Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and President of the Association of State Correctional Administrators, a PREA champion who at first opposed the law, said, “I always took sexual abuse seriously, as did my colleagues, but I didn’t think PREA was necessary. But my views changed. I came to recognize that PREA provides an important structure for running safe institutions. If you get into compliance with PREA, you’ll run a better prison.”

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), one of PREA’s original sponsors, said, “When I joined my friend and colleague from Virginia, Congressman Frank Wolf, in sponsoring PREA, our intent was to bring prisoner rape out of the shadows and pave the way for its eradication. I congratulate the advocates, survivors, and my allies in Congress who worked so hard to ensure PREA’s passage, and today continue the fight to end, at last, this hideous crime.”

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), one of PREA’s original sponsors, said, “PREA was a monumental achievement, and its passage ranks as one of my proudest moments as a member of Congress. But the law’s most important task remains unfinished: putting an end to prisoner rape. It is this final step that, ultimately, will be PREA’s greatest legacy.”