RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We bring you a story, now, that may be difficult for some listeners to hear. A warning: it's about rape in prison. As many as 60,000 prisoners are raped each year. In 2003, Congress mandated that the Justice Department do something about it. This week, the department holds two days of hearings on the issue.
NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.
CARRIE JOHNSON: Six years ago, Kimberly Yates was serving time for a drug offense in a Philadelphia prison. While she was there, she says, she was raped. Unlike many inmates in her situation, the authorities believed her. They prosecuted the guard responsible for the attack; he got four months.
Ms. KIMBERLY YATES: To say that it was a traumatic experience is an understatement. To be in a situation like that, and to be at the mercy of someone who is that sick - it's horrible.
JOHNSON: Fellow inmates had complained about that guard before, but their pleas went unheard.
Now, Yates is one of many former prisoners calling on the Justice Department to issue new standards.
Congress first addressed the issue seven years ago. The legislation brought together an unusual coalition of lawmakers. They included Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy and Virginia Republican Frank Wolf. The sometimes warring factions agreed on one central notion: that authorities could, and should, do more to deter rape in U.S. jails and prisons.
Ms. LOVISA STANNOW: Regardless of what crime someone may have committed, rape is not part of the penalty.
JOHNSON: That's Lovisa Stannow. She advocates for prisoners' rights.
Ms. STANNOW: When the government takes away someone's freedom, it takes on an absolute responsibility to protect that person's safety.
JOHNSON: The Justice Department's own studies suggest that more than 60,000 prisoners report sexual assaults each year. Another study says 12 percent of juveniles in custody fall victim to rape. Too often, guards are the ones committing the crimes.
And yet, the Justice Department on track to miss a deadline this month for issuing standards to help fix the problem. The proposals on the table are nuts-and-bolts measures - steps like not letting male guards monitor women in the showers; keeping younger, smaller prisoners away from bullies; and providing better training for staff.
Attorney General Eric Holder explained his challenge to Congress this year.
Mr. ERIC HOLDER (U.S. Attorney General): When I speak to wardens, when I speak to people who run local jails, when I speak to people who run state facilities, they look at me and they say, Eric, how are we supposed to do this? If we are going to segregate people, build new facilities and do training? How are we supposed to do this? And that is what we are trying to work out.
JOHNSON: State and local prison officials say making the changes could cost more than $1 billion to start and another billion each year to keep them going.
Jamie Fellner is a lawyer at Human Rights Watch. She served on a commission that studied prison rapes, and she says cost is a real problem - but there are other considerations.
Ms. JAMIE FELLNER (Lawyer, Human Rights Watch): Today, people continue to be raped every day. There are stories of sexual abuse that are horrifying, that continue every day. And the standards still haven't been passed.
JOHNSON: Activists plan to highlight the issues at hearings this week in Washington that focus on sexual abuse in juvenile facilities.
Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.