Project on Addressing Prison Rape Prepares to Help Prisons Comply with New Federal Standards

The Project on Addressing Prison Rape at American University Washington College of Law acts as a leading national voice and unifying force in the fight to expose and prevent prison rape and sexual abuse in all levels of correctional system.  Since 2000, the group has played a leading role in framing the issue, identifying the tools to fight it, and providing training to all levels of the criminal justice system to combat the problem.

Now, due to a set of regulations set to come down from the U.S. Department of Justice, the Project could be even more immersed in this issue.

In 1998, Professor Brenda Smith came to the law school as a practitioner-in-residence in its clinical program.  She was offered a tenure track position in 1999 and brought with her “The Project on Prison Rape,” which encompassed work she had been doing in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Corrections.  In that work, she provided research and legal guidance and developed and provided national training on issues related to staff victimization of individuals in custody. 

In 2003, the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) was enacted, and Smith was appointed to the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission by Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-CA.  Smith served on the commission from 2003 until the commission’s sunset in 2009.

“The Project has built a reputation for rigor, integrity, and accuracy on these important issues,” said Smith, who today is a professor of law.  “While the issue of sexual victimization of adults and youth in custody has emerged as a major criminal justice and human rights issue, and that is certainly progress, it is critical that the United States finally adopt a set of standards to prevent, punish, and redress the abuse of its citizens in the custody of the state.  The mark of a civilized society is not how it treats its most privileged citizens but how it treats those who are least privileged and most vulnerable.”

Since 2003, the Project has been in what Smith calls an “intense period,” pushing to keep the issue of sexual violence in custody uppermost in the minds of lawmakers and corrections officials while at the same time building a community of influencers – agency officials, advocacy organizations and individuals affected by abuse in custody.   In 2009, the PREA Commission forwarded its proposed standards and recommendations to the Attorney General for the United States.  Smith continues to work with former commission members to push for adoption of the commission’s recommended standards.  Once promulgated at the end of this year, The Attorney General’s standards will immediately be applicable to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.  Smith is bracing for what could be the Project’s most challenging moment.

“This is one of the most contested and politically charged issues I’ve ever been involved with,” Smith said.  “The standards challenge deeply held notions of the dignity due those in custody and deeply entrenched interests of law enforcement, correctional, and legal authorities.”

Through the efforts of Smith and her team, the Project has become the de facto clearinghouse on issues surrounding prison rape – the go-to site for current information, resources, and research.  In addition to identifying and addressing the problem, the Project works to constantly distribute breaking news and current information to its extensive network of contacts, functioning as a national and global hub for organizations with stakes in this continuing problem.

A Two-Part Approach

When it comes to enforcement, the Project takes a dual strategy.  The first goal is prevention.

“Rather than having people sue these agencies after the fact, we want agencies to understand their legal obligations in the first instance, in the hopes that this will motivate them to improve safety and treatment of inmates in their facilities,” Smith said. 

The second part of the strategy of enforcement is to try to help agencies strengthen their existing legal and other resources. 

“For example, if they have a law on the books about prison rape, but it is only a misdemeanor, we push them to consider stronger penalties for the offense,” Smith said.  “We want to show them what the laws are and where gaps exist.”

Looking ahead, Smith hopes to shift the emphasis from punishment to prevention and to understanding the medical, mental health and community consequences of sexual abuse that occurs in the correctional system. 

“It’s really about the humanity of everyone in the correctional system, and the importance of the state fulfilling its obligation to acknowledge, protect, and preserve that humanity,” Smith said.  “No matter one’s position in the system – inmate, staff, or advocate – everyone can agree on that principle.”

Please see the Project’s website at www.wcl.american.edu/nic/ for more information and a set of resources for agencies, scholars, staff and victims involved in issues surrounding the problem of sexual assault in prisons.  The Project is currently funded through a combination of government and private funding – the United States Department of Justice, National institute of Corrections, the Bureau of Justice Assistance and funding from an Anonymous Donor.  The Project is also part of a larger multi-year collaboration with the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, a nonprofit organization promoting effective, humane, fair, and economically sound solutions to family, community, and justice problems.