The human rights crisis in American prisons

The New York Review of Books points out a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics 216,600 people were sexually abused in prisons and jails in 2008. This means that every single hour of every single day, 25 inmates were sexually abused in prisons and jails – some by staff and some by other inmates.

Rape and sexual abuse in prison is a serious problem, and Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003 to attempt to finally take steps to deal with it. It was not until 2009 that the committee established by the act delivered a report to Barack Obama’s attorney general, who had a year to revise the recommendations and issue nationally binding standards. The Obama administration missed that deadline.

In the meantime, tens of thousands more prisoners have been raped and sexually assaulted in our nation’s prisons. The Obama administration knew well in advance of ever taking office that this was coming, so there is simply no excuse for foot-dragging on this issue. This is an President who campaigned on a platform of respect for human rights and properly treating prisoners of war, so why the lack of action on American citizens who are abused?

Our nation was rightly shocked by the obscene abuse of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib facility in Iraq. But even as we are shocked, we should not be surprised. After all, this is a nation that has turned a blind eye to the sexual abuse of our own people in our prisons and jails for decades, so what are a few abusive pictures of terrorists on top of that?

It is a basic duty of our criminal justice system to ensure the safety of the prisoners under society’s care. While our unsustainable budget deficits are a genuine cause for concern, cost containment should not prevent us from doing what is necessary to protect those prisoners and prevent these crimes. The Obama administration talks a good game on human rights, but the time for talk is over. It is time for action.

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