Public Law 108-79, also known as the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), is federal legislation that was signed into law on September 4, 2003. The PREA legislation, which addresses sexual violence in the context of confinement, ultimately aims to minimize the incidence of sexual victimization in correctional facilities. Although titled the Prison Rape Elimination Act, the legislation defines prison broadly to include all confinement facilities including not only federal, state, and locally operated prisons and jails, but also privately operated and juvenile facilities.
The principal purposes of the legislation include furthering understanding of the nature and extent of prison sexual victimization, establishing guidelines for the prevention and punishment of sexual assault within correctional facilities, and protecting the constitutional rights of prisoners through increasing accountability among those responsible for protecting inmates from victimization.
Although most are aware that inmates are at risk for sexual victimization while incarcerated, surprisingly little is known about the actual extent of prison sexual violence. Research has tried to establish the incidence of sexual assault within correctional facilities, but prevalence estimates have ranged substantially (from 0 to 40% of all inmates). Due in part to the difficulty of conducting research within correctional facilities, studies addressing the incidence of sexual assault in the correctional environment have been small in scale, typically involving only a few facilities and tending to include samples of less than 50 inmates. Within the text of the PREA, reference is made to unnamed experts who estimate that approximately 13% of inmates have suffered sexual assault in correctional facilities. With a prison or jail population of more than two million inmates, the PREA suggests that more than 200,000 inmates will be sexually victimized while incarcerated and that more than one million have likely been sexually assaulted while in custody over the past 20 years.
Given the paucity of reliable data on prison sexual violence, the PREA required that the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) develop a methodology for the systematic collection of prison rape data and annually report on the nature, extent, and effects of sexual victimization within correctional facilities. BJS uses a three-pronged data collection strategy including administrative surveys of facilities, written questionnaires, and self-report surveys. The first administrative survey was conducted over the first 6 months of 2005, and the national implementation of questionnaires and self-report surveys began in the latter part of 2006.
The PREA also established the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, a nine-person commission empanelled for 2 years and charged with conducting a comprehensive study of the impact of prison sexual assault. The commission will develop recommendations for the prevention of prison rape before it happens and for the prosecution and punishment of perpetrators of prison sexual violence when it happens. The National Institute of Corrections is charged with dissemination and providing technical assistance. The PREA allocated funding for both the research and the implementation phases mandated under its various provisions.