Commentary: Prison rape must be eliminated

Rape and sexual abuse remain too much a fact of life behind bars.

That's intolerable. In the United States, our criminal justice system sends convicts to prison as punishment, not for punishment.

The recommendations of the federal Prison Rape Elimination Commission could be a step toward changing the prison culture that permits sexual abuse to continue.

The commission found that more than 60,000 prisoners are the victims of rape and sexual abuse each year. Many inmates are afraid to report such crimes and even those who do are often ignored or dismissed.

Not only hardcore criminals are being victimized. The commission heard from former inmates who made relatively minor mistakes – a political protest gone wrong, a drunken driving arrest or a probation violation – and ended up being brutally raped.

No matter what they did to land in jail, captives are a vulnerable population. They depend on prison authorities to protect them, and it's in the best interests of those officials to do so.

Prisoners will seek protection where they can find it. When the only safe harbor is a gang, the repercussions affect not only prison safety but also public safety when prisoners carry their gangster ways to the streets after their release.

The commission is recommending that Attorney General Eric Holder issue standards that require prisons to have zero-tolerance policies on rape, better staff training and improved screening to identify prisoners vulnerable to abuse, among other measures. States could lose federal prison money if they fail to comply.

To read the complete editorial, visit The (Tacoma) News Tribune.