The Prison Rape Elimination Act is better than nothing—unless, of course, it represents the last gesture politicians intend to make in the direction of addressing this problem. Assuming the study does not blinker reality by denying the prevalence of the problem, it will presumably mandate or exhort state and federal officials to monitor, train, and discipline prison staff and enhance inmate security—all under a threat of withdrawal of federal funds or the firing of negligent officials. Of course, the government would thereby be implicitly forcing prison officials to spend vast amounts of money they do not have and that Congress is unlikely to give state legislatures in the first place.
Perhaps while this federal study is under way, there are other, more honest ways of acknowledging what the American prison system has created. Perhaps every sentencing judge should require that a defendant headed for prison be given extensive "pre-rape counseling" in the hope that he or she can take some small personal steps to reduce the risk of attack. Or perhaps we could require judges to demand data about the differential risks of rape and assault for different types of prisoners in different prisons and begin to factor such data into any sentence. "You committed murder, so let's send you somewhere where you're really likely to be raped." In that way we will be at least as brutally honest with ourselves as we are literally brutal with our prisoners.