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Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 Signed into Law; Commission to Be Formed Soon

On September 4, 2003, President Bush signed the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 (H.R. 1707), creating the first ever federal law to address rape behind bars. Appointing members to the new National Prison Rape Reduction Commission created by the law will be the first step in implementing the act.

A diverse coalition of advocacy groups worked for years to bring prisoner rape to the attention of legislators and the public. [Editor's Note: Michael Horowitz, a fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute in Washington DC was the driving force in pushing for and enacting the PREA.] The breadth of the coalition, ranging from Focus on the Family and the Christian Coalition to the NAACP and the National Council of La Raza, ultimately gained bi-partisan support for the Prison Rape Elimination Act. It was passed unanimously by both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Lara Stemple, executive director of Stop Prisoner Rape, a human rights' organization that pushed hard for the passage of the PREA, said the law "marks historic progress on the most neglected form of abuse in the nation."

The act calls for a nationwide research on the incidence of prisoner rape, the establishment of national standards to address it, and the creation of a review panel that will assess the performance of the best and worst states in the nation. The act creates three programs in the Department of Justice: one dedicated to collecting national prisoner rape statistics and conducting research; one that will provide information and assistance on rape prevention to authorities; and a third program that will distribute grant money to fund state efforts. The law does not include measures to directly aid victims of prisoner rape and does not include an exemption for rape victims from the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which severely impedes prisoners' access to the courts and judicial redress. Both the ACLU and Human Rights Watch had pushed, unsuccessfully, for this exemption to be created. The law cannot be enforced, and provides for no cause of action by rape victims.

The National Prison Rape Reduction Commission will be formed to conduct a comprehensive study of the impacts of prisoner rape over a two year period, then develop recommended national standards for enhancing the detection, prevention, reduction, and punishment of abuse behind bars. The study will gather information and statistics on the relationship between prisoner rape and prison conditions, the characteristics of prisoners most likely to commit rape and those most likely to be victims, to what extent prison rape contributes to the spread of HIV, and an evaluation of current methods of reporting prisoner rape.

The Commission will be composed of nine members appointed by the president and members of Congress. According to the text of the law, appointments will begin 60 days after enactment, and the commission will actually meet another 30 days after that.

With the passage of the PREA, many advocacy groups have turned their attention to the implementation of the law. Several have suggested candidates to serve on the Prison Rape Reduction Commission, and are seeking to have a say on the standards that will be created through the law. "Just passing the bill itself is not going to save anybody from being raped," commented Pat Nolan of Prison Fellowship Ministries in an article on the organization's web site. "It's what follows that will make this effort successful in protecting prisoners."

Stop Prisoner Rape has already submitted nominations for the Prison Rape Reduction Commission, including a former prisoner and survivor of prisoner rape. "It will help immensely if knowledgeable reformers are appointed to the commission," Stemple said. "If this law is implemented conscientiously, it will signify attention at the highest levels of government to a problem that has been denied, ignored, and trivialized for decades."

Paige We1ch is an intern with Stop Prisoner Rape.

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