By Lovisa Stannow, The Star-Ledger
July 25, 2012
Following reports of rampant sexual abuse in New Jersey’s community corrections centers, many local residents were justifiably horrified. But these revelations were, sadly, predictable. In facilities with no oversight, poorly trained staff and bad housing policies, sexual violence is all but certain to thrive.
The good news is that some New Jersey officials are getting serious about stopping this abuse. This week and next, the state Senate and Assembly are holding hearings on the problems plaguing New Jersey’s halfway houses, including sexual violence.
These hearings are part of a broader investigation into abuses at such facilities. This is a welcome step, as is the invitation from Assemblyman Charles Mainor (D-Hudson) to advocacy groups such as Just Detention International to serve as expert witnesses. Advocates have long been pressing for greater scrutiny of detention facilities. If they had been subjected to a more robust system of oversight, New Jersey’s halfway houses would never have become the house of horrors they are today.
Oversight is one of the central provisions of new national standards aimed at ending sexual abuse behind bars. These standards, which were mandated by the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 and issued by the Department of Justice in May 2012, will be binding on all prisons, jails, youth detention facilities, police lock-ups and, yes, halfway houses.
Under the new rules, these facilities will be required to undergo an external audit every three years to assess their compliance with the standards. As part of the auditing process, independent auditors will conduct thorough tours of facilities, hold interviews with staff, inmates and administrators and review relevant policies, complaints and video footage. The audit report will be posted online or otherwise made publicly available.
The PREA standards will protect inmates in other ways, as well. They will require better screening, training and monitoring of staff, who, as the New Jersey halfway house scandal has shown, too often lack the skills needed to keep inmates safe. Under the standards, inmates who are known to be likely targets for sexual assault, such as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, will be housed safely.
Equally crucial, inmates who are abused will be provided with more than one way to file a report, including to an external agency. The urgency of this measure was cast in sharp relief by the Bo Robinson debacle, during which victimized inmates had no one to turn to but staff members, who routinely failed to protect them.
Beginning in 2014, New Jersey’s governor will be required to prove to the Justice Department that all state confinement facilities -- including ones that are privately operated -- comply fully with the PREA standards. The state risks losing 5 percent of its federal prison dollars if it fails to do so.
But the principal motivation for New Jersey’s governing officials should not be financial. Stopping sexual abuse in detention is, simply put, the right thing to do. No one deserves to be raped, no matter what crime that person may have committed. Nor should staff have to work in a climate of constant fear without proper support and training. Unsafe detention facilities also mean unsafe communities, as survivors of sexual abuse bring their trauma, and their communicable diseases, back home upon release.
The PREA standards have the potential to stamp out the crisis of sexual violence in New Jersey’s detention facilities. Whether they will depends on the courage of the state officials who have the power to enforce them. Disturbingly, Gov. Chris Christie -- who has ties to Community Education Centers, the private corrections company at the center of the scandal -- recently blocked legislation imposing more stringent reporting requirements on halfway houses.
If the governor and other state officials are serious about stopping sexual abuse, they must embrace real reform, including transparency, even if it comes at the expense of their friends.
Original post: http://blog.nj.com/njv_guest_blog/2012/07/halfway_house_reform_must_be_e.html