Lovisa Stannow, Op-ed: Local rape case spotlights need for jail safety standards, The Salem News, October 7, 2009
In 2005, the Middleton Jail placed a 35-year-old convicted sex offender in a cell with a teenage, first-time detainee.
The older man raped the boy, who was 17 at the time. The perpetrator has now been convicted and sentenced to 8 to 20 years in prison. This tragic incident was not inevitable, but rather the product of poor corrections management and dangerous practices.
When deciding where to place inmates, corrections officials rely on classification systems that help determine who should be housed with whom, and what relative freedoms inmates can be afforded without compromising order and safety. A core component of any classification system — but one that appears to have been lacking in Middleton — is to ensure that inmates who are particularly vulnerable to abuse are not housed with those who are prone to commit assaults.
Government and academic research have shown that young, first-time inmates, like the victim in Middleton, are especially vulnerable. Officials should have known that housing this teenager in a cell with a much older, convicted sex offender was inappropriate and dangerous.
While the perpetrator is responsible for his criminal actions, jail staff must also examine what they should have done to prevent this rape, and take action to ensure that similar abuses do not occur in the future. Fortunately, they now have a new tool to help them with this important task.
In June, the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission released the first-ever national standards for preventing and addressing sexual abuse behind bars. Mandated by the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, and developed with input from corrections officials, prisoner rape survivors, and advocates, these standards can help put an end to sexual abuse in our nation's detention facilities.
In addition to mandating proper classification practices, the standards spell out requirements for staff training, inmate education, reporting options, and investigations. They also require access to medical and mental-health care, even for survivors who are too afraid to testify against their attackers.
While the standards are directed toward corrections officials, the commission that developed them emphasized the importance of prosecuting prisoner rape with the same rigor as sex crimes in the community. Significantly, the perpetrator in the Middleton case received a stiff sentence, which sends the important message that sexual abuse in detention will not be tolerated.
In light of this disturbing assault, Essex County officials must now demonstrate leadership in addressing the larger human-rights crisis of sexual abuse behind bars. Jail administrators throughout the state should study the new standards carefully and begin implementing them. Not only is this the right thing to do, but it is prudent.
Once the U.S. attorney general has codified them, which he must do by June 2010, these standards will become binding federal regulations. Jurisdictions that are unable to certify their compliance with the standards within a year of the attorney general's ratification, will lose a portion of their federal corrections-related funding.
When the government removes someone's liberty, it takes on an absolute responsibility to protect that person's safety. Massachusetts corrections officials should embrace the national standards and ensure that rape no longer occurs on their watch.