The Obama administration Justice Department was given one year to issue regulations. It didn't. It delayed for two years. The Washington Post editorialized that "tens of thousands of men, women and children have been sexually abused behind bars over the past three years while the Obama administration dithered."
Finally, in June of 2012, the DOJ issued 43 regulations that would require 148,455 hours of paperwork nationwide, require "methods to ensure effective communication with inmates who are deaf or hard of hearing" and mandate post-incident reviews that consider whether attacks were "motivated by hate." The regulations are estimated to cost nearly $7 billion but contain no metric for evaluating success.
Congress needs to exercise more pointed oversight. There may be some Americans who are willing to overlook prison rape and other crimes on the grounds that criminals are unsympathetic victims, but not many. A unanimous vote of the United States Congress is a rare thing. But battling the worst temptations of human nature is never simple, and one vote for one piece of legislation isn't enough.
One way to curb abuse is with cameras. A federal judge in North Carolina has ordered a prison to install additional cameras after a shackled inmate was dragged out of the view of a camera and beaten by three guards. He suffered fractured bones in his hands, face and pelvis. Technology has made cameras smaller and cheaper than ever. Digitalization permits virtually every second of prison life to be recorded.
Outside auditors, as the commission recommended, are also essential in providing regular reports on conditions inside the nation's prisons.
The $7 billion the Obama administration proposes to spend on regulations is almost certainly excessive. But some money must be spent. One reason government spending on unnecessary boondoggles is so offensive is that it limits the funds available for essential government functions. Criminals deserve to serve out their sentences. But to permit them to be abused or sexually assaulted while incarcerated violates the Eighth Amendment and common decency.
What Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote in the 19th century remains true: "The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons."
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