Prisoner rape is a nationwide crisis -- but it’s a crisis that we can end. By adopting strong policies and sound practices, detention facilities can ensure the safety of the people in their care. In May 2012, the Department of Justice released binding national standards to address sexual abuse behind bars. These landmark standards -- mandated by the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) -- lay out concrete, commonsense steps for facilities to take to stop sexual abuse within their walls.

Since the PREA standards were finalized, JDI has led the push for their swift and meaningful implementation. JDI works with corrections officials nationwide to ensure that the PREA standards live up to their potential to stimulate meaningful culture change inside facilities.

Through trainings, policy analysis, and on-site technical assistance, JDI helps federal and state prisons, jails, youth detention facilities, police lockups, and community corrections facilities put in place key provisions from the standards. These provisions include:

Inmate education

A strong inmate education program is essential to creating a safe environment behind bars. Accordingly, the PREA standards call on detention facilities to educate inmates on their absolute right to be free from sexual abuse, how to report abuse, and how to get help in the aftermath of an assault. JDI launched the first-ever PREA inmate peer education programs, in two California prisons and the Miami-Dade County Jail, emphasizing the potential for prisoner rape survivors and other inmates to become leaders in the effort to stop sexual abuse in their facilities. In 2014, JDI released a groundbreaking inmate education video, featuring survivors and peer educators, which corrections officials can incorporate into their education programs.

Partnerships with rape crisis centers

JDI Deputy Executive Director Linda McFarlane (far right) with staff from California Correctional Institution and Women’s Center -- High Desert, partners in the Paths to Recovery pilot project.

Incarcerated survivors need and deserve the same crisis intervention services that are available to rape survivors in the community. Yet historically inmates have not had access to trained rape crisis counselors. Thanks to JDI’s advocacy, the PREA standards require that prisons and jails provide survivors in their custody with ways to get help from outside victim services providers. In 2006, JDI launched a trailblazing initiative to bring rape crisis counselors into two California prisons, proving that such programs can make a difference. Today, JDI continues to help corrections agencies build partnerships with local rape crisis centers. Additionally, JDI provides support and training to rape crisis counselors, helping them build their skills in serving survivors behind bars.

Safe housing for vulnerable inmates

While anyone can be sexually assaulted in detention, some inmates face higher rates of abuse than others. By screening new inmates for known risk factors, such as prior victimization, facilities can reduce sexual assault drastically. Under the PREA standards, detention facilities have to assess an inmate’s likelihood of being sexually abused -- or of being abusive -- before making a housing decision. Crucially, the standards include measures to ensure the safe housing of transgender inmates, requiring that facilities take into account a transgender person’s health and safety -- and not just genital status -- prior to assigning them to a unit. JDI advocated forcefully for the inclusion of these provisions in the standards, and today is helping agencies make their facilities safe for transgender and other vulnerable inmates.

Training staff to prevent and respond to sexual abuse

Safe detention facilities have committed leaders and professional, well-trained staff. The PREA standards call for improved staff training, with an emphasis on protecting vulnerable inmates, such as LGBT people and survivors of prior abuse. JDI trains staff on how to ensure the basic human rights of all people in their care, and how to respond sensitively and professionally to reports of sexual abuse. In its training programs, JDI draws heavily on the wisdom and experience of survivors, and regularly features JDI Survivor Council members as guest speakers. In addition to conducting trainings, JDI helps corrections agencies develop their own survivor-centered staff training curriculum.

Zero tolerance for sexual abuse

For too long, many detention facilities have been secretive institutions in which sexual abuse has been allowed to thrive. Inmates who report abuse are often punished or ignored, while perpetrators are rarely held accountable -- especially when they are staff. A guiding principle of the PREA standards is zero tolerance for any sexual abuse and harassment, whether by staff or by inmates. In all its work, JDI promotes zero-tolerance policies and practices, so that inmates understand their right to free from sexual abuse -- and their right to report abuse and get the help they need, without fear of harassment or retaliation.