Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy On the Ten Year Anniversary of the Passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act

Ten years ago this week, Congress passed a watershed piece of legislation.  The Prison Rape Elimination Act was the first comprehensive legislative effort to prevent something we had long been reluctant to even acknowledge existed -- the incidence of rape in our federal, state, and local corrections facilities.

Violence and victimization have no place in our society, including in our prisons, and we have an obligation to ensure these facilities are safe. The punishment of incarceration does not, and cannot, include a sentence of rape. And yet we know that all too often it does.  A recent report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that nearly 1 in 10 inmates in America had been sexually assaulted in custody.

Too often the victims of such violence end up being the most vulnerable members of our population. Women, racial minorities, and those suffering from mental illness face increased rates of sexual violence while incarcerated.

Children in adult jails are at the greatest risk of being victimized. Juveniles housed with adults are 35% more likely than other inmates to be targeted for sexual assault, and that abuse is taking a terrible toll on this already vulnerable population. Youth under the age of 18 are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than if they were housed in a juvenile detention facility. With 100,000 youth held in adult jails and prisons every year, this is a problem we must address head on.

The Prison Rape Elimination Act gives us the tools to do that. Because of this law the Department of Justice now collects data about the incidence of sexual violence in our prisons so we can better understand the scope of the problem. We have adopted national standards and best practices to create safer environments, especially when it comes to juvenile detention and the dangers inherent in incarcerating our youth with adult prisoners. The law provides for increased training for prison staff, makes it easier for inmates to report violence, and requires prompt medical and mental health treatment for victims.

These protections make sense, and that is why we made sure that the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act that was signed into law earlier this year made clear that these protections also apply to every immigration detention facility operated by the Department of Homeland Security. We are making good progress, but more work lies ahead.

Sexual violence in our detention facilities compromises the health and safety of the inmates, staff, and the communities to which these prisoners will someday return. Although improvements have been made in the past 10 years, let us pause on this anniversary to reflect on the importance of ensuring that every American is safe from violence, and treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.

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