Utah continues to hold out on the Prison Rape Elimination Act — but why?

Two states continue to reject the Prison Rape Elimination Act.

One is Arkansas.

The other is Utah.

And, as a result, Gov. Gary Herbert’s refusal to comply with the 2003 law cost Utah more than $420,000 in Justice Department grants since 2014.

It’s time for Herbert to explain how his objections to the law make Utah inmates safer — either that, or sign a compliance letter with the Department of Justice.

Herbert wrote to the DOJ in May 2014, outlining his objections to PREA.

While he supports the law’s intent, Herbert said, he refused to implement some requirements “because they are not sound policy and in some circumstances undermine our efforts to eliminate prison rape.”

One example of unsound policy, according to Herbert — a requirement for officers to announce themselves upon entering a unit containing inmates of the opposite gender.

Herbert said that would allow inmates to hide sexual assaults already in progress and put the officers at risk.

So, governor, are you saying it’s better for an officer to stumble upon an assault and try to subdue a desperate attacker?

Are you saying it’s better to let an assault continue until an officer sees it, when the announcement of an officer’s arrival could immediately stop a rape?

Are you saying Utah corrections officers aren’t trained to recognize the signs of sexual assault and inmates could easily conceal evidence of a violent attack?

Herbert also objected to the PREA audit program as costly and time-consuming.

Would those audits help Utah prisons respond more effectively to sexual assaults? Would they help the public assess the performance of the Utah Department of Corrections?

Turner Bitton, executive director of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault, says they would.

"What advocates understand is that sexual violence is never a punishment for any crime," Bitton told The Salt Lake Tribune.

Would the cost of the audits been offset by the state’s $422,000 in lost Justice Department grants? The DOJ withheld more than $146,000 in corrections, law enforcement, juvenile justice and women’s programs in 2016, The Trib reported. That’s on top of nearly $135,000 in 2015 and more than $141,000 in 2014.

In a state that cannot find room for prisoners in its state mental hospital and fails to adequately fund its public defender system, an extra $422,000 would’ve helped save lives and protect the rights of indigent Utahns.

Herbert’s spokeswoman, Kirsten Rappleye, said in an email to The Trib that the governor still maintains his 2014 position on PREA.

If so, it’s now up to Herbert to demonstrate how his approach does a better job of protecting prisoners than the federal guidelines adopted by 48 other states; it’s up to Herbert to explain how refusing to announce the arrival of officers in a unit with inmates of the opposite gender is worth $422,000 — and counting.

And if he can’t, it’s time for Utah to end its holdout on PREA.

This piece originally appeared in the Standard-Examiner. Click here to read the original article. 


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