In a late March letter to attorney general Eric Holder, Texas governor Rick Perry apologized. In it he wrote that his state and, he suspected others, too, would not be able to comply with the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) because of burdensome oversight rules. While Perry’s letter provoked a burst of media coverage, able observers mostly pointed out puzzling inaccuracies and phoned in easy rebuttals. In the meantime, PREA is back in the media spotlight.
Until Perry’s letter, PREA had generally remained in the shadows even as it stands to impact more than 2 million people and the culture of punishment within the nation’s prisons and jails. Colorlines checked in with prison reform experts to get a status update on whether, more than a decade after PREA’s passage, we’re any closer to reducing prisoner-to-prisoner or staff-to-prisoner sexual assault.
Sexual abuse should not be an inevitable feature of incarceration.
Passed by unanimous congressional consent, PREA establishes a standard that rape in prison—just like rape on the outside—is unacceptable*. For the first time prisons, jails and immigration and juvenile detention facilities are required to track incidences of prison rape; provide resources to help protect prisoners; and extend recourse to survivors. With national standards finalized last year, many facilities are only just now starting their first on-site audits. Going forward, at least every three years, inspectors will look for things like whether staff has been trained to help prevent sexual assault or if prisoners have been informed of how to report incidents.
The takeaway: “PREA acknowledges that prison rape is a problem,” says editor Alex Friedmann, who follows PREA developments closely for Prison Legal News’ 9,000 subscribers, 70 percent of whom are incarcerated. “You can’t brush it under the carpet anymore. You can’t say that prisoners deserve it.”
Stigma makes tracking sexual assault inside prison walls difficult.
Roughly 200,000 men, women and children reported being sexually abused in detention facilities in 2011, the most recent year for which the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) has anonymously self-reported data from inmates. For prisons, whites reported inmate-on-inmate sexual victimization at twice the rate of blacks. Black and Hispanic inmates reported higher rates of staff sexual misconduct. Persons of two or more races reported by far the highest rates for both inmate-on-inmate (4 percent) and staff sexual misconduct (3.9 percent). And of the more than 600 correctional facilities surveyed that year, the Oglala Sioux facility in Pine Ridge, S.D. reported the highest rate of staff sexual misconduct (10.8 percent)*. (The national average for prisons and jails is 2.4 percent and 1.8 percent, respectively).
Despite the above, however, the true incidence of sexual violence for all inmates is likely higher, Chris Daley, deputy executive director of Just Detention International, says. “We just don’t have a good method of estimating how much higher.”
Friedmann points out that the stigmas bounding rape and sexual assault victims to silence on the outside are exacerbated behind prison walls. “If anything [the pressure to not report is] more exacerbated in prison where any sign of weakness sets you up for further abuse,” Friedmann says. “And, if you’re being abused by a staff member you may face retaliation, too.”
PREA’s implementation does not mean that imprisoned loved ones are now safe.
“We believe a number of agencies have aggressively moved forward with implementing PREA and in those facilities the culture and infrastructure is starting to be in place,” Daley says. “But we’re still a far cry from improving day-to-day safety.” What PREA does do is provide tools (like reporting hotlines for inmates) and it improves response mechanisms. For example, PREA empowers loved ones to report incidents to non-staff law enforcement on a prisoner’s behalf. “So a family member can now file a report with state inspectors or the police and expect to hear an official response.” But know, Daley says, that “in some facilities, sexual abuse is deeply entrenched and it will take a while for daily life to improve.”
Even with PREA’s fairly extensive reporting and response requirement, Friedmann points out that it is an unfunded mandate. “Other than a moral incentive to comply there’s no real financial incentive for states to comply,” he says. (There’s a 5 percent loss of federal funds for states that don’t participate in the audit but the funds would be disbursed if the state uses it for compliance.) He adds, “PREA is a decent bill with decent protections but it’s not the best that it could be.”
Still, PREA is better than the zero-response regime that preceded it.
“In the past any number of corrections officers would say one of three things to an inmate [claiming sexual abuse],” Daley says: ‘Defend yourself’; ‘I don’t get involved in domestic disputes’; or,’Sure I’ll take care of that’—and never do anything about it.” Now, Daley says, staff members or contractors know that if they do nothing to prevent abuse then their jobs are at risk.
Popular culture outside prison walls affects tolerance for rape on the inside.
“The only acceptable humor involving rape has to do with prison rape,” says Friedmann who, like other Prison Legal News employees was once incarcerated. “It’s acceptable to have the ‘drop the soap’ joke. We haven’t gotten away from that because the public has a skewed idea of what really happens in prison. You have to realize: prison walls don’t just keep prisoners from getting out*. They keep the public from looking in, too.”
*Post has been updated.