Idaho finally agrees to comply with federal prison rape law

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BOISE, Idaho (AP) — After two years of refusing to comply with a federal law intended to stop prison rape, Idaho has reversed course.

Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter advised the U.S. Department of Justice in a letter Thursday that Idaho's prisons, jails and juvenile detention centers would work toward coming into full compliance with the standards required under the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA).

That means every state except for Utah, Arkansas and Alaska has either implemented the law or promised to work toward full implementation of it.

"Prisons, jails, and detention centers in Idaho are making strides to implement the standards," Otter wrote, noting that three state juvenile detention centers have all passed audits showing they are compliant with the law.

States were supposed to be in full compliance with the law two years ago, but Idaho and a handful of others refused. At the time, Otter said the law had too much "red tape" and that complying would cost the state millions of dollars. Instead, he said a special task force would develop Idaho-specific rules to combat sex abuse behind bars. Many of the rules the task force came up with were identical to the federal standards.

The state has lost roughly $82,000 a year in federal grant money for refusing to comply with the federal law. Now Otter is asking the U.S. Department of Justice to reinstate the funding so it can be used toward implementing the federal law.

"Clearly this is a hugely important step forward by Idaho," said Lovisa Stannow, executive director of Just Detention International, an organization that works to end sex abuse behind bars. "The commitment to PREA signals real culture change — this is much more than a symbolic step forward."

Idaho Department of Correction Director Kevin Kempf said he spoke with the Idaho Sheriffs' Association on Tuesday, asking for their help in bringing the state into compliance. Under the law, all correction facilities have to undergo audits showing that they have implemented all the standards, including training staffers to recognize and investigate sexual assault, allowing inmates to access rape crisis centers and having a zero-tolerance approach to sex abuse.

The Idaho Sheriffs' Association voted unanimously to work toward compliance with the federal law, Kempf said. The work of the state task force helped pave the way, he said, giving correction officials across the state time to examine the federal rules and see if they were feasible.

"When the PREA national standards first came out, they looked daunting. As we have worked through a lot of them, we've become smarter, and they're not as daunting as they first looked," Kempf said. "I really think it was a responsible thing for us to explore exactly what it meant before it was signed on the bottom line."

Kempf also said he appreciated the governor's willingness to give him some autonomy over the matter. Kempf was named the Idaho Department of Corrections director in December 2014, several months after Otter first announced the state wouldn't be participating in the Prison Rape Elimination Act.

Stannow said the governor's letter shows that the state, the Idaho Department of Correction and Idaho sheriffs recognize that "implementing PREA is a way to make prisons and jails safe."

"This is a reason for advocates and corrections officials and inmates in Idaho to celebrate and to really recognize that the state is making a very important commitment to the basic dignity of all people," Stannow said.

Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003, and experts across the country worked over the next decade to create the standards intended to stamp out rape behind bars. Federal statistics show about 216,000 adult and juvenile inmates are sexually assaulted each year nationwide.

Otter's spokesman, Jon Hanian, said the policy change reflects progress made by the state and by smaller county facilities. "I think it just speaks to the fact that we've been moving the ball on this, and we're at the point where we're ready to send the letter," Hanian said.

Hanian said he couldn't immediately comment on Otter's statement from 2014 that implementing the law would cost millions. Otter's letter, though, suggested that the way the law is interpreted has changed somewhat: "As the interpretation and accepted practices related to the federal PREA standards continues to evolve, so too does Idaho's response," the governor wrote.

In the letter, Otter said the state's juvenile detention system is already fully compliant with the Prison Rape Elimination Act.

The Idaho Department of Juvenile Corrections is currently facing several lawsuits from nearly a dozen current and former juveniles who say they were sexually abused by staffers while at a detention center in Nampa.

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