Prevention Corner: The Prison Rape Elimination Act

Aug 22nd, 1970

Prevention Corner: The Prison Rape Elimination Act Rebecca Turner, Esq. Inmate PREA Services Liaison (IPSL)/Staff Attorney   Sexual assault in prison has long been treated as a running joke in American pop culture. After all, how many times have we all heard the “don’t drop the soap” bit? The problem is anything but a joke. The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that 200,000 adults and children are sexually assaulted in detention each year.[1] A 2012 study puts the numbers at about 10% of state inmates.[2] Each survivor is assaulted an average of 3 to 5 times a year.[3] Those who are most vulnerable are the most at risk: incarcerated survivors are often targeted because they identify as LGBTQIA, because they are a survivor of prior trauma, because they appear physically vulnerable, or because they have a mental illness. Incarcerated survivors feel the same effects of trauma as those on the outside – they show the same symptoms, and have the same increased risk of PTSD, depression, and other serious physical and emotional consequences. These effects are in many ways magnified and intensified by the prison environment. Prisoners fundamentally lack privacy – they are subjected to frequent pat downs and searches, and they are under almost constant surveillance by corrections staff, cameras, or both. Prisoners frequently have to share extremely cramped living quarters with someone else – maybe someone that reminds them of the perpetrator, or possibly the perpetrator themselves. They are unable to move freely. Prisoners are unable to control aspects of their environment that are frequent triggers or stressors – noise, light, the number of people around them. Furthermore, the resources available to them are extremely limited, and their ability to communicate with the outside world very restricted. A federal law, the Prison Rape Elimination Act, or PREA, was passed in 2003.[4] It called for a nation-wide “zero tolerance” policy for sexual assault in prison. Standards for prevention and response were not finalized until 2012, and now that detention facilities have begun to work toward compliance, PREA has become a hot topic among sexual assault coalitions, advocates, and corrections officials. Much of the discussion around PREA focuses on the response – this is the part most directly relevant to rape crisis centers and advocates. Prevention strategies and the federal standards related to prevention planning are frequently given much less attention; however, this does not diminish the importance of prevention in correctional facilities. It is critical that both response and prevention be given appropriate attention and resources. One important way that advocates can help with prevention is by working with corrections officials to train and educate staff and inmates. One great resource is Just Detention International, a non-profit dedicated to stopping sexual assault in prison. They are a wealth of information on statistics, strategies, and policies. While the PREA standards on prevention planning may seem less directly relevant to those that do not work in corrections, they provide important context for working with incarcerated survivors. Knowing the prevention standards may help advocates recognize potential problems and red flags within a facility. First, it is important to know that the prevention standards require each facility to have a written zero-tolerance policy, and to appoint a PREA coordinator who oversees the facility’s compliance efforts.[5] Finding out who this coordinator is would be a good first step for advocates providing services to incarcerated populations. The standards also talk about supervision and monitoring – facilities need to be adequately staffed, have video monitoring when necessary, and limit blind spots that may be potential areas for abuse to occur.[6] Minors held in adult facilities are extremely vulnerable to abuse. The standards have specific prevention provisions for this population that require that they cannot be placed in housing units with sight/sound/physical contact with adult inmates through use of shared common spaces. Outside of housing units, facilities must maintain sight/sound barriers or provide direct staff supervision when sight, sound, or physical contact between youthful and adult inmates is present.[7] Another big issue for prevention is what is referred to in the standards as “cross-gender viewing”. Facilities cannot have staff strip search or conduct cavity searches of inmates of the opposite gender (except in very limited circumstances). There also need to be policies that allow prisoners to shower, use the restroom, and change clothing without staff of the opposite gender seeing their breasts, buttocks, or genitalia. Staff of the opposite gender must announce their presence when entering housing units.[8] Another major prevention standard relates to hiring and promotion decisions. Corrections agencies cannot hire or promote anyone who has engaged in sexual abuse in a detention facility or has been convicted or civilly adjudicated to have committed sexual assault or attempted sexual assault in the community. Agencies also have to conduct background checks and contact former employers.[9] In addition, agencies also have to train all employees who may have contact with inmates on a number of subjects, including dynamics of sexual abuse in confinement, how to detect and respond to signs of threatened and actual sexual abuse, how to avoid inappropriate relationships with inmates, and how to communicate effectively with the LGBTQIA population. This training takes place pre-service, and is refreshed every 2 years. Volunteers and contactors have to undergo similar trainings. Inmates are also trained on the zero-tolerance policy and their right to be free of sexual abuse.[10] The screening process is another major prevention component. Upon entering a facility, an inmate should be assessed for their risk of being abused by other inmates or becoming abusive toward other inmates. This information is then used for housing, education, and work assignments with the goal of keeping separate those at high risk of being abused, and those at high risk of being abusive. Transgender inmates should have their assignments reviewed regularly for safety and their views on their own safety given serious consideration.[11] MCASA has a new project to help serve incarcerated survivors. We are currently coordinating with the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services and will support rape crisis centers providing sexual assault services for survivors in state prisons, and provide training and assistance as needed for implementing these services. These services are required by the PREA final standards, which will be discussed in more detail in a future issue of Frontline. We will also be coordinating to meet any training and support needs of DPSCS, Rape Crisis and Recovery Centers, Sexual Assault Response Teams, etc. Prison rapes are preventable, not an inevitable part of incarceration. Prisons and jails with strong policies supported by community organizations can keep prisoners and detention facilities safe. Working together, we can provide services for a desperately underserved population.  
  [1] Beck, Allen J. et al. 2013. "Sexual Victimization in Prisons and Jails Reported by Inmates, 2011–12." Bureau of Justice Statistics. May. Accessed June 3, 2015. [2] Beck, Allen, and Candace Johnson. 2012. "Sexual Victimization Reported by Former Prisoners, 2008." Bureau of Justice Statistics. May. Accessed June 03, 2015. [3] Beck, Allen, and Paige et al Harrison. 2010. "Sexual Victimization in Prisons and Jails Reported by Inmates, 2008-09." Bureau of Justice Statistics. August. Accessed June 3, 2015. [4] Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003. (P.L. 108-79). 117 Stat. 972. [5] National Standards To Prevent, Detect, and Respond to Prison Rape, 28 CFR 115.11 (Department of Justice, 2012), available at [6] National Standards To Prevent, Detect, and Respond to Prison Rape, 28 CFR 115.13 11 (Department of Justice, 2012), available at [7] National Standards To Prevent, Detect, and Respond to Prison Rape, 28 CFR 115.14 11 (Department of Justice, 2012), available at [8] National Standards To Prevent, Detect, and Respond to Prison Rape, 28 CFR 115.15 11 (Department of Justice, 2012), available at [9] National Standards To Prevent, Detect, and Respond to Prison Rape, 28 CFR 115.17 11 (Department of Justice, 2012), available at [10] National Standards To Prevent, Detect, and Respond to Prison Rape, 28 CFR 115.31-33 11 (Department of Justice, 2012), available at [11] National Standards To Prevent, Detect, and Respond to Prison Rape, 28 CFR 115.41-42 11 (Department of Justice, 2012), available at   This article appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Frontline.  

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