Robert M. Cook, County jails ignore federal anti-rape law, Foster’s Daily Democrat, September, 23, 2007.

Officials at several county jails in New Hampshire and Maine say they so far don't plan to comply with a federal law requiring jails and prisons to take specific steps to stop sexual assault and rape among inmates.

The law, titled the Prison Rape Elimination Act, was enacted in 2003 and sets a January deadline for compliance.

It applies to all jails and prisons nationwide. Its requirements include that facilities give inmate victims proper medical care, counseling and protection so they won't be subject to retaliation from other inmates and that facilities do a better job of reporting and documenting sexual assaults. It also requires a full-time investigator and a full-time victim advocate. Facilities that don't comply risk losing up to 5 percent of their federal funding.

Officials at four of New Hampshire's 10 county jails say they don't plan to comply with PREA. Officials at three said they already have complied, while officials at the remaining three did not respond to repeated requests for information.

Mike Vitiello, superintendent of the York County Jail in Alfred, Maine, said his facility hasn't complied because the federal standards are not yet in final form. One expert, however, says the current PREAstandards still are binding.

Officials at state-level corrections departments in New Hampshire and Maine have said they've complied.

The reasons New Hampshire's county officials give for not complying range from a lack of funding to implement some requirements to claims that they already have sufficient policies in place.

"We haven't adopted any of it," said Richard Grenier, superintendent of the Belknap County House of Corrections in Laconia.

He said jail officials there have focused on rewriting existing policies covering sexual assaults involving inmates or correctional officers. Grenier, who said he's worked at the Belknap jail for 30 years, said administrators there believe they have good oversight and supervision. He also questioned whether the federal policy is needed.

"Because it's a crime, we shouldn't be letting it happen anyway," he said.

The jail now has 71 inmates and 24 uniformed corrections officers, he said. Two areas in the jail are for female inmates, and seven are for male inmates.

Maj. John Blomeke, assistant superintendent at the Rockingham County House of Corrections in Brentwood, said they're not implementing the federal policy either. Jail officials there have had adequate policies and other measures in place for 26 years, he argued, including an inmate classification system to weed out prisoners who might engage in sexual assaults as well as placing 61 surveillance cameras in hallways, common areas and work areas inside and outside the county jail.

The Rockingham County jail usually has about 275 to 300 inmates and 101 employees, he said.

"We do as well as we can," he added.

York's Vitiello said he's confident his jail has adequate policies governing prison rape. About 75 corrections officers oversee roughly 210 inmates at the jail.

He said he could not yet justify going to county commissioners to seek funding for some of the federal requirements.

Meanwhile, Ray Bower, who oversees the Strafford County House of Corrections in Dover, said they've implemented the federal requirements.

"We've actually been engaged in this right from the beginning," he said. He added that Strafford County sent a representative to congressional hearings in 2003 before the law was passed.

Strafford County's policy provides inmates who are victims of a sexual assault with several confidential ways to report it, he said. The jail also has programs in place to provide inmates with therapy, counseling and medical treatment, he said.

"No jail wants to operate where any inmate feels threatened," Bower said. "It's the appropriate way that jails should operate."

The Strafford County jail has more than 60 correctional officers and nine locations for its 350 inmates, Bower said.

The jail also has written policies detailing how to investigate alleged sexual assaults. It calls for the Strafford County Sheriff's Department to investigate such cases and for the Strafford County Attorney's Office to prosecute them, Bower said.

Sill, he stressed, no policy can eliminate the problem of prison rape.

"Does it mean that it will never happen? No."

Linda McFarlane, a spokeswoman with Stop Prisoner Rape, a nonprofit group in Los Angeles, Calif., said the federal law applies to all correctional facilities that have as few as five inmates and as many as 5,000. SPR is the primary advocacy group that lobbied Congress to pass the law.

McFarlane said jails that choose not to comply could lose their accreditation status and risk losing up to 5 percent of their federal funds.

The law also created the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission. It has eight members appointed by President Bush and congressional leaders in 2004. The panel is to provide recommendations for final standards to the U.S. Attorney General's office, which then will publish a final rule in 2008.

But waiting until that's finished is not a good idea, she said. She added that the changes can take years to implement and officials who wait risk losing federal grants that can help improve their facilities.

"The proactive institutions are going to have much less of a shock when the new standards come out," McFarlane said.

McFarlane said she recognizes that money is an issue for smaller facilities, but added that it doesn't give them an excuse.

Still, she acknowledged, the federal government could — and should — do more to make it easier for smaller jails to comply.

According a March SPR report, it will require about $60 million annually from 2004 to 2010 to help the country's correctional facilities implement the act. But funding has declined steadily since the law was passed in 2003, down from $40 million in 2004 and another $40 million in 2005 to $18 million in 2006.