Matt Kelley, An Opportunity to Help End Prison Rape, Criminal Justice Blog, Change.org, March 16, 2010
1: Just Detention International's recent "Would You Joke Around About this Man Being Raped?" campaign (covered here at Change.org) was extremely powerful. Why does our culture's strong taboo against sexual assault stop at prison walls? Have the ads been effective?
It is very encouraging that the postcard campaign has attracted so much attention over the past few months -- but this campaign is actually not a recent effort. Just Detention International, or JDI as we call ourselves, has been distributing these postcards for several years, to prison officials and others. We revamped our website earlier this year and featured them prominently on the homepage, which led to the ‘discovery' of the images among bloggers.
In the public debate, prisoners tend to be silent and invisible. Most inmates come from marginalized, low-income communities and people of color are vastly over-represented among them. Prisoners cannot stage public relations campaigns to counter injustices on late-night television or on the big screen. But flippant and ill-informed attitudes about inmates and their right to be free from sexual violence are major obstacles to ending this type of abuse. That is why JDI has made it part of its mission to ensure that prisoner rape is described accurately -- as a crime and a devastating human rights violation. The postcard campaign is part of that effort.
Although we still have a long way to go, in recent months we have seen something of an explosion of interest in our work among journalists and opinion leaders. The Washington Post and the New York Times have run editorials on sexual abuse in detention, and columnists and pundits from across the political spectrum have started treating the issue with a new level of concern and seriousness.
2: It's been more than eight months since the release of the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission Report. How important was that report in exposing and addressing the problem, and what are federal and state governments doing (or not doing) to take next steps?
The Commission's report and recommended national standards represents a dramatic shift in the debate about prisoner rape, echoing core messages that JDI has put forward for years. Prisoner rape can be prevented, and there are straightforward steps prisons and jails can take to end this type of violence -- these were themes in the Commission's work and in the resulting media coverage. Reading the report and standards, one is repeatedly struck by how plainly sensible the recommendations are -- and, therefore, by how appalling it is that such basic measures haven't already been standard practice for decades.
Once the standards were released last June, by law, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder had a year to review and codify them as federal regulations, making them binding on detention facilities nationwide. Disappointingly, he will not meet that deadline.
In fact, he may take until late 2011, or even longer. As part of its review, the Department of Justice's internal PREA Working Group has held "listening sessions" with various stakeholders (including advocates and prison officials) and commissioned a study of the costs (but not the benefits) of the standards. On March 10, 2010, the Department of Justice began a 60-day public comment period, asking for input on the Commission's recommended standards generally as well as three specific questions about implementation costs, the definition of rape, and whether there should be different requirements for different types of facilities.
In contrast to the Justice Department, some states have acted decisively to endorse the standards, recognizing their potential to reduce rates of sexual abuse dramatically within their facilities. JDI is working with the Oregon and California state prison systems to help them become early adopters of the standards. We are doing similar work with Macomb County Jail in Michigan and exploring the possibility of launching additional projects elsewhere. Unfortunately, other corrections agencies are dragging their feet, waiting for the standards to be finalized before taking action.
3: The Department of Justice is now accepting public comments on the standards. How can the public comment process help reform efforts?
It is crucial that people who care about ending sexual abuse behind bars submit comments. We know that corrections officials and their lobbyists will weigh in en masse. During the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission's public comment period in 2008, on a draft version of the standards, more than 100 corrections departments and associations submitted comments objecting to the standards. Supportive public comments are vital to ensuring that the Attorney General promulgates strong standards.
The Justice Department's public comment period is especially important as its review process otherwise is closed to outsiders. We know which agencies are participating in the PREA Working Group -- including officials from the Bureau of Prisons, which is opposed to important aspects of the Commission's recommendations -- but we still do not have a list of the group's members. Neither survivors nor their advocates have any formal role. This public comment period is one of the only opportunities for advocates, current and former inmates, and others to weigh in. We must use this opportunity to send a clear message to Attorney General Holder: ratify the standards swiftly and fully. Every day that we don't have these measures in place, countless men, women, and youth will be raped even though we know how to keep them safe. (Send a letter using the widget above that will be entered into the official record as a comment urging Eric Holder to help end sexual abuse behind bars.)
4: One of the most surprising results of the recent survey of juvenile prisoners was the prevalence of assault by staff and particularly female staff. Can you offer some insight as to why sexual assaults by staff are so common? Why are assaults by female staffers so prevalent?
It is shocking that the majority of those who abuse detained children are the very government officials supposed to keep them safe. That pattern is not unique to juvenile facilities -- in the Bureau of Justice Statistics surveys of inmates in adult jails and prisons, the majority of survivors also reported that the perpetrators were staff, not other inmates. Facilities with high levels of abuse tend to have poorly trained staff and leaders who aren't committed to holding officials accountable when they fail to respect even the most basic professional boundaries. The national standards currently under review by the Department of Justice mandate training for staff and development of professional protocols for handling sexual abuse.
Corrections officers have enormous control over inmates' lives. Any sexual contact between a staff member and detainee is by nature sexual abuse; the power differential is simply too big for true consent when one person holds the key to another's freedom. Yet some staff still claim that incidents of abuse were consensual, or, even worse, that they were manipulated by inmates. The level of sexual abuse committed by female staff is not that surprising when you consider that they too have almost complete and unchecked power over the detainees in their charge. Poorly managed detention facilities, with bad policies, inadequate training, and little accountability, create opportunities for any staff person to become abusive.
The standards include explicit measures focused on holding corrections staff accountable -- when they directly abuse prisoners, or when they allow sexual abuse to happen. Investigations must be thorough and repercussions have to be meaningful. Far too many staff perpetrators of sexual abuse are let off the hook. Firing them and referring them for prosecution is essential, as it sends an important message that the facility does not tolerate sexual violence.
5: What can states -- and individual facilities -- do to address this problem among staff?
States can -- and should -- implement the standards. They represent best practices from around the country, and they have the potential to end sexual abuse behind bars. In facilities where JDI is working to implement the standards, some staff members were wary at first but soon came to embrace these measures. That's because dedicated corrections staff know that sexual abuse in detention is a terrible problem not only for its immediate victims, but for them as well. These are people who take pride in their jobs and their profession, and nothing could be more contrary to their mission than allowing those in their care to be raped. In facilities where rape is common, where the rules seem to have no force and animosity between inmates and staff is fueled, their safety is at risk. And they know that traumatized survivors and undeterred rapists may, on release, be more prone to recidivism themselves. Corrections officials must be our partners in the effort to end sexual abuse in detention.