Five years after Congress expressed alarm at rape in U.S. prisons, the Justice Department is in danger of missing a deadline for new standards targeting the problem. An unusual coalition of groups is calling for action, but corrections officials say wholesale changes will cost too much.
Six years ago, Kimberly Yates was serving time for a drug offense in a Philadelphia prison. While she was there, she was raped.
Unlike many inmates in her situation, Yates was believed by the authorities when she reported what had happened. They prosecuted the guard responsible for the attack; he received a four-month sentence.
"To say that it was a traumatic experience is an understatement," Yates says. "To be in a situation like that, and to be at the mercy of someone who is that sick, it's horrible."
Fellow inmates had complained about that guard before. But their pleas went unheard.
Now Yates is one of many former prisoners calling on the Justice Department to issue new standards that could help save other victims.
Congress first addressed the issue seven years ago. The legislation brought together an unusual coalition of lawmakers -- including Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and Republican Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia.
The sometimes warring factions agreed on one central notion: that authorities could, and should, do more to deter rape in U.S. jails and prisons.
"Regardless of what crime someone may have committed, rape is not part of the penalty," says Lovisa Stannow, who advocates for prisoners' rights. "And when the government takes away someone's freedom, it takes on an absolute responsibility to protect that person's safety."
The Justice Department's own studies suggest that more than 60,000 prisoners report sexual assaults each year. Another study found that 12 percent of juveniles in custody fall victim to rape. Too often, guards are the ones committing the crimes.
And yet the Justice Department is likely to miss a deadline this month for issuing standards to help fix the problem.
The proposals on the table are nuts-and-bolts measures -- steps like not letting male guards monitor women in the showers; keeping younger, smaller prisoners away from bullies; and providing better training for staff.
Attorney General Eric Holder explained his challenge to Congress this year.
"When I speak to wardens, when I speak to people who run local jails, when I speak to people who run state facilities, they look at me and say, 'Eric, how are we supposed to do this? How are we supposed to segregate people and build new facilities and do training?' That is what we are trying to work out."
State and local prison officials say making the changes could cost more than $1 billion to start -- and another $1 billion each year to keep the standards in place.
Jamie Fellner, a lawyer at Human Rights Watch, served on a panel that studied prison rapes. She says cost is a real problem -- but there are other considerations, as well.
"People continue to be raped every day," Fellner says. "There are stories of sexual abuse that are horrifying. And the standards still haven't been passed."
Activists plan to highlight the issues at hearings this week in Washington that focus on sexual abuse at juvenile facilities.
A Justice Department spokeswoman says officials are working diligently. "It's unacceptable for anyone in the care of our country's correctional facilities to be sexually assaulted," she says. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.