I've said it before and I'll say it again: we cannot appreciate enough what going to prison can really mean. Too many of us scoff and say, "Oh, it's only X number of years in prison -- do the crime, do the time!" Prison doesn't just mean loss of personal freedom (and a million other daily choices and luxuries those outside of prison take for granted every day). For too many prisoners, prison can also mean sexual assault, rape, humiliation, and all the trauma that accompanies it.
The Washington Post today calls on the Obama administration to get moving -- and move fast -- on implementing the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), a landmark piece of legislation aimed at removing rape as a fact of prison life:
Congress unanimously approved the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) in 2003 with rare and spectacular bipartisanship. Ideological opposites — Reps. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Sens. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and the late Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) — were lead sponsors. The act created a commission that spent six years studying sexual abuse in correctional facilities and crafting thoughtful proposals to decrease such violence.
The commission was led by Judge Reggie B. Walton of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, a judge known for his tough law-and-order approach. It included representatives from academia and the private corrections industry and prisoner advocates. The panel issued recommendations in the summer of 2009; the Obama administration had a year to craft regulations.
Instead, the Justice Department needlessly duplicated the commission’s work, re-interviewing dozens of individuals and groups whose views the panel had considered. It waited while a private consulting firm analyzed the costs of implementing changes, and it blamed the bureaucratic process for delays. It did not, in other words, move with all deliberate speed to protect those in government custody from a form of brutality that leaves psychological scars that can hamper a person’s reintegration into society. Swift and sure action would have been the appropriate response if the administration had been serious about refuting the vile assumption that sexual abuse is an acceptable byproduct of incarceration.Rape shouldn't be a part of a prison sentence. But it probably will never be completely eliminated, even if our best PREA policies are implemented, so it's another reminder to lawmakers: we need to be extremely careful in deciding who we imprison, for how long, and why.
And many in this country need to get past the ideas that prison is cushy, cozy, or not harsh enough, and that more time -- and more mandatory time -- is always the first and best answer to any crime problem.