Guest Post by Jennifer Wedekind
Editor’s Note: Jennifer Wedekind is a journalist whose work has appeared in Mother Jones, In These Times, and the Multinational Monitor. She is a 2011 JD Candidate at Georgetown Law.
The public comment period for the PREA regulations extends through April 4, 2011. To submit a comment or read the full text of the proposed standards, go to this page on the website of Just Detention International, an organization devoted to exposing and eliminating the epidemic of prison rape.
The Department of Justice in early February opened a comment period for proposed regulations under the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). Passed in 2003, the Act requires the Attorney General to promulgate national standards for the detection, prevention, reduction and punishment of prison rape. While its ultimate aim is to stem the rampant sexual abuse that occurs in prisons and jails across the country, up until now PREA has largely been an aspirational and fact-gathering statute.
The proposed regulations are structured around recommended standards put forth by the Prison Rape Elimination Commission, established by PREA, in a comprehensive 2009 report on the “the penological, physical, mental, medical, social, and economic impacts of prison rape in the United States.” However, subsequent comments by interested parties citing concerns about prison security and inmate “gamesmanship” have resulted in some of the recommendations being largely neutered. Additionally, a statutory mandate that no regulation impose substantial additional costs on prison authorities may limit the types of programs the regulations can implement. However, the comment period will allow for criticism and revision of the proposed regulations and provides an open forum for prisoner-rights advocates to be heard.
The problem of prison rape that PREA is attempting to address is nothing short of staggering. An estimated 88,500 adult inmates — 4.4 percent of prison inmates and 3.1 percent of jail inmates — reported at least one instance of sexual victimization in the previous year, according to a 2010 Bureau of Justice Statistics report. At a Hughes Unit prison in Texas, the facility with the highest rates of reported victimization, 8.6 percent of inmates reported being sexually assaulted by another inmate. Sexual victimization by guards is equally as prevalent. In the Crossroads Correctional Facility in Missouri, the male facility with the highest rates of guard sexual misconduct, 8.2 percent of inmates reported being victimized. At the women’s Bayview Correctional Facility in New York, 11.5 percent of inmates reported sexual victimization by guards.
When a prisoner comes forward and reports a sexual assault, he or she is more likely to face retribution than redress. Complaining prisoners frequently face retaliatory harassment, discipline or further abuse. A full 25 percent of inmate victims are summarily sent to solitary confinement, according to the Department of Justice’s own numbers.
Additionally, an inmate complaint will rarely result in legal sanctions for the perpetrator or prison authorities, despite the fact that the Supreme Court has held that placing an inmate at risk of sexual assault with deliberate indifference can be a violation of the 8th Amendment. The main obstacle between inmates and a courtroom is the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). Congress passed the PLRA in an effort to prevent “frivolous” inmate lawsuits and created considerable hurdles that an inmate must overcome to see his or her day in court. Significantly, any regulations passed under PREA will have to be in compliance with the PLRA, which may hamper its effectiveness in some areas.
In cases of sexual assault, inmates are most often stymied by two PLRA requirements — an exhaustion of all administrative remedies and a showing of physical harm. If a prisoner fails to comply with the technical and often arbitrary requirements of the administrative procedures, or if the inmate misses one of the filing deadlines — which may be as short as 48 hours — his or her right to sue is forever forfeited. Cases are frequently dismissed because of technical errors, because the wrong form was used or because the complaint was submitted to the wrong entity within the sprawling prison system.
In a notable 2003 case, Human Rights Watch reported that sixteen female inmates filed suit alleging systematic sexual abuse by prison staff, including forcible rape, coerced sexual activity, oral and anal sodomy, and forced pregnancies. The federal court hearing the case refused to address the merits, instead taking nearly five years to conclude that the women’s use of informal reporting procedures provided by the prison resulted in a failure to adequately exhaust all administrative remedies.
The PLRA also requires a showing of physical injury — and many jurisdictions do not consider a sexual assault to constitute a physical injury per se. This provision in particular is frequently relied upon to dismiss claims by victims of sexual assault, who frequently have no proof of physical injury due to delay in reporting, lack of additional violence during the assault, or inadequate prison medical providers, who often do not have the resources or willingness to administer a rape kit.
Advocates hope the final PREA regulations will provide more services for inmates and more accountability for prison administrators. However, while the regulations may be able to ease some of the administrative burdens currently on inmate victims, it will not provide a private cause of action and the PLRA will still dictate access to courts.
The proposed regulations would ban cross-gender strip searches, create minimum standards for investigations following a report, require correctional facilities to provide medical and mental health care, and institute a zero tolerance policy for sexual assault and harassment. The regulations also purport to make the prison grievance systems more accessible, however they don’t go as far as most advocates think necessary. It remains to be seen what effect, if any, the regulations will have.