Written by Marianne Mansfield

According to an article in RawStory.com, “A Georgia trans(gender) woman who is currently incarcerated in state prison says that she has been sexually assaulted again, even in the midst of her lawsuit against the state demanding safer accommodations.”

Beyond basic human compassion, there is another compelling motivation for those of us in Utah to care about what this story portrays.

Utah—along with Idaho, Alaska and Arkansas—has refused to comply with, or totally ignored the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). It is this law under which the inmate in Georgia and her attorney are advancing their claim.

PREA was passed by a Republican Congress and signed by President George W. Bush in 2003. Between then and 2012, a bi-partisan federal commission worked to operationalize the law’s requirements. The federal commission included academics, representatives of advocacy groups and prison managers and was chaired by the Honorable Reggie B. Walton, a U.S. district court judge.

Under the law, prisons are required to maintain a “zero-tolerance policy” regarding sexual abuse, perform background checks on prospective staff, and prevent juveniles from being housed with adult inmates. Additionally, prisons are to provide external and anonymous channels for prisoners to report sexual abuse, as well as providing physical and mental health care to victims. Facilities must be audited every three years, and states that don’t comply are subject to a 5 percent reduction in federal funds. Sounds pretty reasonable to me.

But our own Gov. Herbert has other ideas. In a May 15 letter to the Department of Justice, he opined that while the state of Utah fully supports the law’s intent, most of the requirements have already been implemented here. Moreover, he labeled some of the requirements as unsound policy and argued that some actually undermine the state’s efforts to eliminate prison rape.

Wow! We must have it going on here if we are so far ahead of the game. Except that there is little evidence to suggest that is the case. Searches for information on Utah’s efforts to eliminate prison rape resulted in a less than one page, poorly written description of a 2004 program, the acronym for which is SART, Sexual Assault Response Team. Labeled “Utah’s Promising Practices,” this document appears to describe a training put on for 82 department managers.

For the purpose of discussion, however, let’s pretend that Utah is a progressive in this area. Assume our state doesn’t deserve to be lumped together with Texas and its Gov. Perry, who has declared PREA regulations counterproductive and unnecessarily cumbersome. Nor do we belong in the company of Idaho and their Gov. Otter who complained of too much red tape. Or Indiana and their Gov. Pence who complained about the financial burden of implementing the regulations.

Let’s just say it is as Gov. Herbert says it is. We don’t need this law because we are doing just fine out here on our own, thank you very much federal government.

Is this beginning to sound familiar to you?

Remember when Gov. Herbert tried to opt us out of Medicaid expansion? Now he has his own plan, negotiated he says with the feds in a manner than accommodates the uniqueness of Utah. Unfortunately for the Governor, however, it appears that a number of Republican members of the Utah Legislature aren’t sold. At least not yet.

Or remember back in 2013, shortly after the Sandy Hook elementary school shootings when our Utah Sheriffs Association wrote to President Obama? In their letter they 1) commiserated with the families of the victims; 2) pledged their subservience to a ‘higher power’; 3) explained to the president the distinction between lawful violence and criminal violence; and 4) pledged to defy any effort to enforce a federal directive that they perceived as violating the Constitution.

This is a pattern that disturbs me. Many in our state seem to hold to the belief that it is permissible to opt in or out of the Union of the United States based on their personal judgment about federal activity. It’s as though there’s a notion in Utah that membership in the Union swings both ways. We’re in when we like what’s going on, but we’re out when we don’t. We’ll handle it on our own. And oh, by the way, don’t try to stop us or we’ll grab the guns that we believe the Second Amendment of the Constitution entitles us to and run you all the way back to Washington, D of C.

I don’t think it works this way. Unless we decide to secede from the rest of the country—which I am not advocating—I think we have to play by their rules. Working to change what doesn’t work for us is a smart choice, but simply ignoring what we don’t like? Not so much.

Let’s look at PREA. There are legitimate choices for ways to work through problems. The DOJ has indicated a willingness to partner with states to assist with reasonable options for implementation. In fact, they have done so with several states already.

This set of laws was designed to protect our citizens who are incarcerated. The manner in which we treat our criminals, I think, speaks to the issue of who we are as a country (not just a collection of disparate states) in our hearts.

While the headline may be about the transgender woman in Georgia, the larger reality is that PREA addresses the safety of incarcerated youth. It demands that youth not be housed with adult offenders. Who can argue with that?

We may not like the red tape and may feel that there is an additional financial burden imposed by the implementation, but the greater good here is how we treat fellow human beings. I would argue that the inconvenience is more than worth the trouble.