PREA: The Prison Rape Elimination Act


Prison rape – or any sort of sexual assault of inmates – is a serious issue. In 2003 a bipartisan bill supported by Senators Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Jeff Sessions (R-AL) called for the creation of a system of reporting so that the number of prison rapes could be quantified. Called the Prison Rape Elimination Act, it required:

  • creation of multiple methods of reporting rapes by inmates;

  • establishment of a zero tolerance policy within penal institutions across the country;

  • use of the National Institute for Corrections to provide training and technical assistance to facilitate reporting and gathering facts;

  • the Justice Department to make the issue a priority, and

  • the Bureau of Justice Statistics to prepare an annual report to Congress on the issue.

How it works

Training is a key component of implementing the PREA, but so is prisoner education. Under the act, all new inmates are informed of their rights under the act, including access to rape counseling services, when they are admitted to prison. Some longstanding practices have been eliminated, such as having male guards pat down female prisoners, and making accommodations available for LGBT prisoners.


In its 2007 report, the Bureau of Justice Statistics said that 4.5 percent of inmates had experienced sexual assault or rape while in detention, including juveniles. Juveniles held with adults were more likely to experience sexual assault or rape, they found. Human Rights Watch, a nonprofit organization, said that prison officials frequently looked the other way and did not attempt to stop rapes and assaults. In addition, the organization said many prisons had much higher than average incidences of rape, including a facility in Nebraska where the guards and other prison staff were the aggressors and prisoners were raped by paid employees 12.2 percent of the time.

In 2011, 8,700 incidents of rape or sexual assault were reported in prisons. In 2018, more than 24,000 were reported. Officials believe the sharp increase reflects trust in the online and offline reporting system, not a dramatic change in the number of assaults. Of that 24,000, only about 6 percent of cases were substantiated, showing a “flat” or unchanging number of assaults since the standards were developed and implemented. More than 40 percent of cases could not be substantiated.

A Bureau of Justice Statistics report on the same figures said that guard or prison employee assault on prisoners was determined in more than 40 percent of the substantiated cases. Accusations of staff-on-inmate sexual violence had risen dramatically, the bureau said, but was substantiated less frequently than inmate-on-inmate violence. The Marshall Project, a watchdog nonprofit, said that investigations of guard-on-inmate sexual assault often begins with the assumption that a guard is an innocent victim of baseless claims, effectively biasing any report.

Three surveys of inmates were conducted between 2008 and 2017, with a key finding that females held in juvenile facilities were assaulted three times more often than male juveniles. Also, those with psychological issues were much more likely to be victimized than those without such issues.

prison rape

History of PEA

The human rights organizations Human Rights Watch and what’s now called Just Detention International began in the 1990s to bring the issue of prison rape to the attention of Congress and the public by participating in high-profile court cases. These cases included Farmer v. Brennan, a 1994 case before the U.S. Supreme Court that underscored the need for humane treatment of prisoners under the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution after a trans sexual individual was sexually abused and raped in an Indiana prison while prison officials looked the other way. In the 1997 Supreme Court case ACLU v. Reno, the organization successfully had the Communications Decency Act declared unconstitutional. The suit was waged to protect the Just Detention International website, which contained some graphic material.

In 1996 Human Rights Watch revealed a study of sexual abuse of female prisoners in 11 U.S. institutions, most at the hands of male guards. The female prisoners had no recourse and laws that forbid the unwanted contact were not enforced, the report says. In 2007 the organization published a book, “No Escape: Male Rape in the U.S.” that highlighted the problem by interviewing 200 inmates in 34 states over a multi-year period.

The process of getting the PREA enacted and operational is a study of government in action: although the Act was passed in 2003, it took until 2009 for a commission to send draft standards to the Department of Justice, which in 2012 issued standards for states to follow in enabling of sexual assault. In 2014 the Deputy Attorney General reported that two states were in compliance and 46 others planned to seek grant money to achieve compliance with the standards.

The result

Preventing prison rape should help to stem the spread of AIDS, a deadly disease that’s more common in prison populations than the general public. Prison rape is considered a public health crisis because it leads to exacerbated psychological issues in many people, increased violence, and suicides.