JDI IN THE NEWS - 2010

Sasha Natapoff, NYRB series on prison rape, PrawfsBlog, March 20, 2010

The prison population may be shrinking, see Hadar's recent post, but it's still pretty rough in there. Prison rape is one of those pesky moral disasters that somehow the penal system can't quite manage to fix, although the New York Review of Books two-part essay by David Kaiser and Lovisa Stannow points out that some prison systems have nearly eliminated rape, while others, e.g. Texas, don't appear to be trying very hard. Here are the links: The Rape of American Prisoners, and The Way to Stop Prison Rape. The essay is a great (and disturbing) overview of the factual, legal, and political aspects of the problem--I'll probably assign it in my seminar.

The 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) triggered a massive study of prison rape, and created the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission. Kaiser and Stannow work for Just Detention International, a human rights organization that has been involved with the Commission in studying the new data and drafting reforms. The introduction starts with a harrowing description of the pervasiveness of rape in juvenile facilities, mostly committed by staff, thus adding a new and urgent twist to the school-to-prison pipeline problem. From the introduction:

Across the country, 12.1 percent of kids questioned in the BJS survey said that they'd been sexually abused at their current facility during the preceding year. That's nearly one in eight, or approximately 3,220, out of the 26,550 who were eligible to participate. The survey, however, was only given at large facilities that held young people who had been "adjudicated"—i.e., found by a court to have committed an offense—for at least ninety days, which is more restrictive than it may sound. In total, according to the most recent data, there are nearly 93,000 kids in juvenile detention on any given day. Although we can't assume that 12.1 percent of the larger number were sexually abused—many kids not covered by the survey are held for short periods of time, or in small facilities where rates of abuse are somewhat lower—we can say confidently that the BJS's 3,220 figure represents only a small fraction of the children sexually abused in detention every year.

What sort of kids get locked up in the first place? Only 34 percent of those in juvenile detention are there for violent crimes. (More than 200,000 youth are also tried as adults in the US every year, and on any given day approximately 8,500 kids under eighteen are confined in adult prisons and jails. Although probably at greater risk of sexual abuse than any other detained population, they haven't yet been surveyed by the BJS.) According to the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, which was itself created by PREA, more than 20 percent of those in juvenile detention were confined for technical offenses such as violating probation, or for "status offenses" like missing curfews, truancy, or running away—often from violence and abuse at home. ("These kids have been raped their whole lives," said a former officer from the TYC's Brownwood unit.) Many suffer from mental illness, substance abuse, and learning disabilities.

The Commission has completed its recommendations which contain new national standards. Attorney General Eric Holder has until June to issue them, but that may not happen. From the second piece:

The commission's recommended standards have been submitted to US Attorney General Eric Holder, who by law has until June 23, 2010, to review them and make any changes he deems necessary. Then he must issue them formally, following which they will become nationally binding. Now, however, he is being pressured to weaken the standards. And the opposition to the commission's recommendations is led by corrections officials: in particular, by professional associations such as ASCA, which has accused the commission of being "one-sided and myopic" in its approach, and gone so far as to call it "childlike."

These corrections officials seem to have a great deal of influence over the current Department of Justice. The review it has undertaken since June 2009 resembles the commission's in many ways, but what had been an open and inclusive process under the commission is now largely closed. We know which agencies are participating in the Justice Department's internal working group on the standards—including officials from the Bureau of Prisons, who are also opposed to important aspects of the commissions recommendations—but we still do not have a list of the group's members. Neither survivors of prisoner rape nor their advocates now have any formal role. It appears certain that Holder will request an additional year, or perhaps even more, for his own review.



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