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A federal law called the Prison Rape Elimination Act is aiming to end sexual assault in prisons nationwide. The law was passed more than a decade ago. It's only now starting to be implemented. In February, a juvenile detention facility in Idaho became the first in the country to become fully compliant. Other states are not moving so fast. The governor of Texas says he won't adopt the new standards, calling them ill-conceived. All states must get in line or face funding cuts. Experts say it could usher in a new era of how inmates are treated behind bars, as NPR's Laura Sullivan reports.

LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Three men with clipboards have just walked into a housing unit at the Maryland Correctional Institution for women. Women in jumpsuits are peeking out of their cells to see what's happening. These men are auditors doing a practice inspection. They're here to see if this facility complies with the Prison Rape Elimination Act, or PREA.

HOWARD RAY: Do we have any PREA signs in this area?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: No.

RAY: No PREA signs in this area?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: No.

RAY: There are PREA signs in this area?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Unintelligible)

SULLIVAN: Auditors Steven Cubello and Howard Ray are staring at a line of phones. There's no sign with the toll-free hotline inmates can use to report an assault. It's one of many new standards the law puts into place. Maryland sent these three department employees to become certified auditors just to do these dry runs. A group of prison officials quietly tagging along shake their heads at the phone bank. They already know that's a problem. And on this day, the problems keep coming.

RAY: So where are the cameras in here?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: We don't have cameras in the building, remember I told you?

SULLIVAN: The Prison Rape Elimination Act passed through Congress so quickly in the summer of 2003. Most people probably missed it. But then came the long slog. Turns out, it's hard to change workplace standards for every prison nationwide. Mary Lou Leary is a principal deputy assistant attorney general at the Justice Department.

MARY LOU LEARY: Sexual victimization while somebody is in confinement is totally unacceptable. It is, in and of itself, a crime, and it has to stop.

SULLIVAN: Here's the deal. All states have to put the new standards into place, things like training staff to stop sexual assaults and report them properly, providing victims with rape kits and counseling. Then states have to pass an audit. If states don't pass, or don't want to go through the audit, they will lose five percent of their federal prison grant funding.

LEARY: What we are hearing from the field is this is challenging. It's difficult to put this policy into action but it is absolutely the right thing to do.

SULLIVAN: Experts say this 5 percent of grant funding isn't much for many states. But the real power in the law is in liability. If an inmate is raped repeatedly in a facility in a state that has refused to adopt national standards, that could look an awful lot like deliberate indifference to a jury in a civil lawsuit.

And there appears to be a problem. At least four percent of adult inmates reported being victimized in 2012, according to the Justice Department. In juvenile facilities, one in 10 kids reported being raped, sexually assaulted or victimized in the preceding year. Eighty percent of those kids said they were victimized by staff.

STEVEN JETT: The audit process is an audit of your culture. It's not a policy audit.

SULLIVAN: Steven Jett runs the Southwest Idaho Juvenile Detention Center. In February, it became the first facility in the country to pass a PREA audit.

JETT: I could have said, we don't need it here, we don't have any incidents like that. I could have taken that attitude. But it is the best practices, that we don't let our inmates or our residents in our facilities be abused sexually or any other way.

SULLIVAN: In Maryland, auditor Howard Ray ducks into a random office and chooses a woman behind her desk.

RAY: Prison Rape Elimination Act. Are you familiar with that?

SULLIVAN: The law says every staff member needs to know how to handle a report of an assault and what to do if they see something suspicious. Statistically, half of adult inmates who report being victimized say they were victimized by staff.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: PREA is zero tolerance for any sexual abuse or sexual harassment, inmate against inmate or inmate against staff, contractors or volunteers.

RAY: OK. That's good.

SULLIVAN: Prison officials look relieved. As the group moves to the next building, David Wolinski, the state's PREA coordinator, is taking the day in stride. Maryland is ahead of most states and hopes to be certified in the coming months.

DAVID WOLINSKI: The first time through is the toughest. So once you get it down, it's just maintenance. So I would hope that after the first year, it's not going to be near as difficult.

SULLIVAN: And, in this state and throughout the country, the number of teenagers and adults who are assaulted while locked up may start to decline. Laura Sullivan, NPR News, Washington.

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