Why NCTE Cares About the Prison Rape Elimination Act Standards

If you have seen NCTE’s Blueprint for Equality, you know that the federal agenda we’re working on is both complex and comprehensive. Every issue on the agenda is important. Some of the issues are truly life saving, while others are simply necessary steps to full equality. All of it is important to some trans people who are facing obstacles to living fully. And one of these issues I’m really proud of working on is the National Standards to Prevent, Detect and Respond to Prison Rape.

In 2003, the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) was passed by Congress and signed by President Bush. The Republican Senate, the Republican House and the Republican President all agreed that, regardless of various positions on corrections and crimes and related issues, in the United States we all agree that sexual assault in prison is unacceptable and must be stopped. A Congressionally appointed commission and the U.S. Department of Justice spent nearly a decade studying the issue and developing national standards to address all aspects of the problem. And NCTE has provided input all along the way.

And very soon—hopefully within weeks—the U.S. Department of Justice will release standards that could help significantly decrease rape in prison. We have not yet seen the final standards, but we are hopeful that our advocacy has influenced them in terms of how trans people are classified housed and searched among other things.

NCTE and our allies like the Transgender Law Center, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, National Center for Lesbian Rights, Just Detention International and others, have worked hard to make sure that the new standards effectively advance this cause for the many trans people who find themselves behind bars and who are especially susceptible to sexual assault. In the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, we found that 15% of the trans people who had been in prison had been sexually assaulted.

Sexual assault is never acceptable for anyone to have to face. It is not acceptable for trans people or gay or bisexual people or prisoners or immigration detainees or anyone. Society either recognizes that truth for everyone or else no one is really protected.

The forthcoming PREA standards will decrease this scourge, which means less prison rape, and in turn, less suicide, less HIV transmission and generally less misery. That is something we should all support.

What is the right thing to do? What will help the most vulnerable people? What will help the most trans people? These are questions we ask ourselves all the time.

Prisoners and immigration detainees, regardless of why they are incarcerated, are human and are vulnerable. Any society worth having ensures that its vulnerable members are treated as humanely as possible. The United States has always believed that.

Additionally, if we are advocating that trans people needed to be treated according their correct gender, we must advocate that position for all trans people in all circumstances. And if transition-related care is medically necessary, it is medically necessary even in prison.

Finally, not all of us like to admit this, but the available data is clear: often trans people are incarcerated only because they are transgender or because of how they’ve been forced to live for being trans. In the National Transgender Discrimination Survey we found that 7% of our sample reported being held in a cell at some point in their lives due to their gender identity/expression alone.  These rates skyrocketed for Black (41%) and Latino/a (21%) respondents.  All kinds of trans people benefit to different degrees from every bit of work we do, but we work always for all trans people.

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