WASHINGTON — The Obama administration’s Department of Justice has released new rules to combat the epidemic of sexual assault in the nation’s prison system, a crisis that disproportionately affects LGBT inmates, as the agency specifically addressed Thursday.
The new rules coincide with a presidential memorandum mandating that the Prison Rape Elimination Act, a law passed by Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support nearly a decade ago, applies to all U.S. correctional and detention facilities (the Justice Department has been finalizing rules pertaining to the law over the past several years).
“Sexual violence, against any victim, is an assault on human dignity and an affront to American values,” President Obama wrote. “To advance the goals of PREA, we must ensure that all agencies that operate confinement facilities adopt high standards to prevent, detect, and respond to sexual abuse.”
While LGBT advocates have hailed the Justice Department rules as a significant step forward in protecting vulnerable gay and transgender inmates, questions remain about why DOJ’s PREA regulations, which it has spent years and millions of dollars developing, do not directly apply to the nation’s immigration detention facilities that hold approximately 32,000 people every day. (For more on this issue, read The Advocate’s Eight Months in Solitary report.)
Rather, as detailed by the Justice Department, the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees those immigration facilities, will be tasked with creating its own standards compliant to the law. The presidential memo instructs all agencies with confinement facilities to report their own rules on sexual assault to the attorney general.
Allowing DHS to issue its own standards has been a point of contention for dozens of immigrant and LGBT advocacy groups, which have stressed, in part, that the process creates two separate sets of standards for facilities housing both inmates and immigrant detainees.
On a conference call with reporters, senior administration officials asserted that standards for detention facilities would be best formulated by Homeland Security officials, who will be issuing new proposed regulations within 120 days, followed by a public comment period. It’s unclear when those standards would be finalized, though such rules would require independent audits to ensure they comply with PREA.
“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,” DHS spokesman Peter Boogaard said in a statement.
For the nation’s prisons and jails, the rules released Thursday detail specific, crucial reforms around LGBT and intersex inmates, from pat-down search protocol to the use of segregated facilities.
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