Photo by: White House

PREA was the first federal law to address rape in prison. It requires a zero-tolerance policy on all sexual acts for all forms of detention. It came after years of advocacy, research and lawsuits. The 1984 Georgia case Cason v. Seckinger featured women who claimed they were forced into sexual acts with staff, and one woman claimed she was made to have an abortion after a staff member impregnated her; it led to consent decrees that changed prison policies in Georgia. A 1996 decision in Lucas v. White, a case involving women in a federal prison who said they were “sexually assaulted, physically and verbally, sexually abused and harassed, subjected to repeated invasions of privacy and subject to threats, retaliation and harassment when they complained about this wrongful treatment,” prompted the Federal Bureau of Prisons to issue a plan aiming to eliminate sexual abuse.

Later that year Human Rights Watch released a report highlighting the sexual abuse of women in U.S. prisons, as did Amnesty International in 1999. In 2001, Human Rights Watch released another report, this time focusing on male-prisoner rape, No Escape: Male Rape in U.S. Prisons. Compiled after several years of research, this first-ever survey of male-prisoner rape not only described the abuse to which prisoners were subjected but also outlined a plan of action for prisons to implement in order to end this mistreatment.

No Escape was covered on the front page of the Sunday New York Times above the fold, so it doesn’t get any more prominent than that,” says Lara Stemple, the former executive director of Just Detention International (known until 2008 as Stop Prisoner Rape), which was one of the leaders of efforts for a federal law aiming for the elimination of prison rape. Congress hadn’t supported a 1998 effort to address prison rape. But two years after No Escape, when the more comprehensive PREA legislation was introduced, it received a great deal of support, with co-sponsorship in the Senate including Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and in the House of Representatives by Frank Wolf, R-Va., and Bobby Scott, D-Va.

“There was no truly organized opposition to this bill. It was really a matter of getting people to care about it,” says Stemple, adding that the passage of PREA was accomplished by humanizing the issue and discussing with the general public what had been happening to prisoners. It helped that the cause attracted a wide array of supporters, from Prison Fellowship to Human Rights Watch to the conservative Hudson Institute.

“There was a significant coalition that included a broad range of faith-based leaders and civil and human rights organizations and prison conditions (advocates) and criminal justice folks and researchers who were really advocating for (PREA),” says Melissa Rothstein, the senior program director at Just Detention International. “In Congress, there was strong bipartisan support.” Rothstein says that while prison rape jokes still get told, they began to ebb after the passage of PREA. “I think within the general community that this is something that people sort of knew and heard about and may have had preconceptions about but isn’t something that people were necessarily confronted to thinking about,” she says. “I think more people have given it thought because there has been this federal law, and through this federal law there’s been more attention to this problem.”