The Justice Department made final a rule Thursday to prevent sexual abuse in federal prisons that included provisions aimed at providing better protection for LGBT inmates.
The rule, the first-ever federal effort to set standards at all jail facilities, is in accordance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003. It was first proposed last year.
According to a statement from the Justice Department, the standards require, among other things, that facilities try to prevent sexual violence in prison by incorporating the unique vulnerabilities of LGBT people as well as intersex and gender nonconforming inmates into training and screening protocols.
“Sexual violence, against any victim, is an assault on human dignity and an affront to American values,” President Obama wrote in a memorandum accompanying the announcement. “The Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 (PREA) was enacted with bipartisan support and established a ‘zero tolerance standard’ for rape in prisons in the United States.”
The standards include specialized training for prison staff and screenings in detention settings to determine if LGBT inmates are at higher risk for being targeted for sexual abuse. The new rule has particular impact on transgender inmates. Agencies must train security staff on respectful searches of transgender inmates; transgender people can’t be assigned to a male or female facility based solely on their anatomy; and transgender inmates will be given the opportunity to shower separately from other inmates.
LGBT advocates hailed the codification of the rule for extending new protections for LGBT inmates — who are seen as being more vulnerable to sexual violence while in prison. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, one in three former transgender inmates report being sexually abused.
Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, said “no one — and I mean no one” should be subjected to the pain and indignity of rape — even individuals who are incarcerated.
“By adopting these national standards to prevent, detect and respond to prison rape, the federal government put its foot down and said ‘no more.’ LGBT people, often the targets of brutality in detention settings, stand much to gain,” Carey said. “Lives are literally on the line, and these historic standards will help combat this terrible epidemic and lift our common humanity.”
Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, also called the finalization of the rule significant.
“We have an obligation as civilized people to protect the people we incarcerate,” Keisling said. “That has always been an American promise, but one we have barely tried to keep. These new standards, if fully implemented, have the potential to help us keep that promise at least in terms of sexual assault.”
The memorandum says that rule applies to facilities administered by agencies other than the Justice Department. Such facilities would likely include immigration detention facilities run by the private companies or the Department of Homeland Security. Agencies with federal confinement facilities not subject to the Justice Department’s final rule must propose within 120 days any rules or procedures necessary to satisfy the requirements of the law, and make final any such rules or procedures within 240 days of their proposal.
Peter Boogard, a DHS spokesperson, said his department “fully embraces” the law and looks forward to implementing the provisions under the new rule.
“The regulations will build on the substantial improvements we have made to agency policy and procedures to prevent, detect and respond to sexual abuse in immigration detention,” Boogard said. “DHS will move swiftly to promulgate these regulations and will work with the attorney general and others to ensure that the regulations satisfy the requirements of the statute.”
Mary Meg McCarthy, executive director of Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center, urged the Obama administration to monitor DHS closely to ensure the department implements the rule in a timely manner.
“The U.S. government has finally acknowledged that immigrant detainees must be protected from sexual violence while in immigration custody,” said McCarthy said. “We wish the regulations applied to immigration detention facilities immediately. Instead, DHS has another year to implement a law that has been on the books for nearly a decade. Some of the individual provisions announced today are evidence of the Obama administration’s commitment to protecting immigrants from abuse, particularly those who are vulnerable because of their sexual orientation or sexual identity.”