Rights groups want prison-rape-prevention rules expanded

— -- WASHINGTON - Eight years after Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act, the Department of Justice is finally on the verge of implementing it with a series of new guidelines and auditing techniques to try to reduce sexual assaults against inmates in federal custody.

But human rights groups, including the ACLU, are enraged that the proposed rules don't apply to people held in immigration detention centers and are calling on the Obama administration to make a change.

When the act was passed in 2003, it focused on inmates held by the Department of Justice, which oversees the country's federal prisons. But it's the Department of Homeland Security that houses most people held on immigration violations — roughly 33,000 a day are in Homeland Security custody.

Justice has released a set of proposed rules to implement the act and will adopt them in early 2012. Now critics are pushing hard to force Homeland Security to undergo the same overhaul to ensure that immigration detention centers are as safe as prisons will be under the new guidelines.

Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., co-sponsored the act with Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., and got it passed unanimously through both chambers of Congress. The two are asking colleagues to co-sign a letter to send to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, urging her to adopt the act for immigration detention centers.

Scott said at a briefing this week that it was Congress' intent to eliminate sexual assaults "in all confinement settings."

"We are a long way from doing that," Scott said.

Officials with Justice and Homeland Security refused to comment on the proposed rules because interagency negotiations are ongoing. But Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said the agency has been undergoing a systemwide detention reform effort since 2009 to prioritize health and safety.

"While we do not comment on draft rules during the rule-making process, ICE vigorously agrees with the intent of the Prison Rape Elimination Act," Christensen said. "ICE's current Performance Based National Detention Standards prohibit sexual assault and sexual abuse and mirror the critical provisions in the Prison Rape Elimination Act."

Critics such as Joanne Lin of the ACLU say that's not enough, especially for an agency with a poor track record for preventing sexual assaults.

She pointed to recent convictions of guards at ICE detention facilities on sexual abuse charges, and a Human Rights Watch report that documented more than 50 sexual abuse victims while they were in ICE custody.

She said some of the confusion stems from the fact that the Department of Homeland Security was created shortly before the Prison Rape Elimination Act was passed. Before the creation of Homeland Security, immigration detention was handled by Justice.

But several members of the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, which was created by the 2003 act to study the issue and make recommendations to implement the act, said that confusion shouldn't be used to exclude immigration detention centers.

The commission's vice chairman, John Kaneb, recalled several conversations he had with Sen. Edward Kennedy as the act was being debated in Congress.

"Ted Kennedy told me specifically he wanted to make sure immigration detainees were covered," Kaneb said. "He was very insistent on that. They believed they had covered that matter."