Utah one of only two states not complying with federal prison-rape guidelines, DOJ says

Utah continues to reject federal guidelines meant to prevent prison rape — and now is one of only two states that won't comply, according to a recently released U.S. Department of Justice report.

Nineteen states have fully adopted standards under the Prison Rape Elimination Act, or PREA, according to the department's latest compliance list. Another 34 states and U.S. territories have demonstrated they are working toward compliance.

But Utah and Arkansas continue to reject the standards. Several other states — including Idaho, Alaska and Texas — initially rejected PREA but in recent years agreed to move toward compliance. 

Kirsten Rappleye, spokeswoman for Gov. Gary Herbert, said in an email that Utah "fully supports the goal of eliminating rape within our correctional facilities," and the state "implemented many of the stated recommendations prior to the PREA's passage, and has now implemented the majority of them."

But she said state officials felt certain aspects of PREA "undermined our dedicated efforts to eliminate prison rape," so the state has decided not to comply.

Passed in 2003, PREA mandated increased sex-abuse training for staff and the ability of inmates to report sexual assault to a rape crisis center or similar organization, among other guidelines. It also required prisons be audited for compliance with the law every three years, and created a uniform method to collect data on prison sexual assaults. Federal statistics estimate about 200,000 inmates are sexually assaulted each year.

For Utah, refusing to implement the standards has meant losing out on significant federal grant money. Last year, $146,132 was withheld in Department of Justice grant funds for corrections and law enforcement, juvenile justice and violence against women programs, according to Bureau of Justice Assistance figures. In 2015, it was $134,899, and in 2014, the state lost $141,347.

Herbert wrote a letter to the DOJ in 2014, saying the state would not adopt certain requirements of PREA, including one rule that prison workers who entered secure facilities with opposite gender inmates announce their presence. He also wrote PREA's prison audit structure was overly costly and burdensome for the state.

Rappleye said the letter continues to represent the governor's position on PREA.

"We would like to work with the federal government in every way to reduce prison rape, but we will not sacrifice results to satisfy an arbitrary one-size-fits-all process," Herbert wrote in his 2014 letter.

Turner Bitton, executive director of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said implementing PREA would increase prison sexual-assault transparency in Utah through regular audits and the uniform collection of sexual assault data that could be compared to other states. Better accounting could help lead to improved rape responses at certain under-performing facilities, he said. 

"What advocates understand is that sexual violence is never a punishment for any crime," Bitton said. 

Mara Haight, executive director of the Rape Recovery Center, said more resources are needed for prisons to help prevent abuse and give support to sexual assault victims — especially considering a majority of inmates have already experienced some form of violence or abuse prior to entering prison. Access to outside sexual-assault resources is one area that needs major improvement at Utah prisons, she said. 

Haight also said it was frustrating to see federal grant money was being withheld due to the state's noncompliance.

"It means fewer resources to be able to work on improving these systems and building up resources," she said. "It's really troubling that our state can't commit to the bare minimum of what PREA is proposing."

When the DOJ released its first list of states complying with PREA in 2014, only two states were certified in compliance, and six states opposed the rules. 

Lovisa Stannow, executive director of the human rights organization Just Detention International, called Herbert's hold-out on adopting the standards "disappointing" and "indefensible" in light of how many states now support the standards.

"Fortunately, much of the early cynicism around the PREA standards has faded away," Stannow said in a statement. "Elected representatives and corrections professionals are realizing that the standards make a lot of sense."

This piece originally appeared in The Salt Lake Tribune. Click here to read the original article.