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Sanctioned prison rape tantamount to torture

Congress unanimously passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003. More than a decade later, many states are only beginning to comply with the law, and prison rape is still a disgusting and pervasive problem across the country.

According to the latest Justice Department survey, 4 percent of state and federal prison inmates had reported suffering sexual abuse in the previous year. That ratio was a staggering 1 in 10 for youths in various correctional facilities. And those results reflect only those willing to report sexual abuse to survey-takers.

Although American culture often treats it as such, rape cannot be an expected part of how the justice system punishes criminals, particularly young and vulnerable offenders. They surrender their liberty, not their humanity. Any official tolerance of sexual abuse in prisons, jails or local lockups is torture. Congress wisely decided to devote federal time and money to stamping it out.

So what’s the holdup? The law required a commission to make recommendations, then the Justice Department spent years finalizing rules for the states to follow. Last month, states had to report on their progress. Only New Hampshire and New Jersey certified that they fully comply. Most of the rest instead offered “assurances” to the Justice Department that they were working on complying. The law offers states this leeway, as long as they devote a significant chunk of the federal money they get toward prison rape reform. Then there are a handful of states – Arizona, Idaho, Indiana, Nebraska, Texas, Utah and Florida – that offered no assurances that they would comply. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, R, said that the rules are too one-size-fits-all and would be too costly.

Neither excuse is convincing, particularly because Texas has had years to prepare and has taken millions of dollars in federal assistance to comply with the law, which does not make outrageous demands on states. They have to establish zero tolerance for prison rape by doing things such as establishing channels to report abuse and screening applicants for prison jobs. Some things will be hard but worthwhile: States must separate youths from adults without overusing solitary confinement, a hellish punishment all its own. The Justice Department is poised to dock federal grant money from Texas and the other holdouts. It should.

The Justice Department should also pressure the states that say they are still working on complying. They cannot be allowed to continually submit assurances to federal officials instead of complying fully. Over the next couple of years, they must risk having their funding docked, too. The federal government should make that clear.