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How PREA will affect corrections in 2015

The subject of prison rape is no longer being avoided


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An ugly subject came to light in 2003, when Congress, who rarely agrees on anything, unanimously found common ground on the topic of sexual assault in America’s prisons and jails. An early version of legislation was written to simply reduce prison rape; later, language was amended to say prison rape must be eliminated. As a result, the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) was signed into law by President George W. Bush.

For the first time, the elephant in the room was vigorously acknowledged, named, and defined. The idea that sexual harassment, sexual assault, trauma and victimization were once considered part of the prison experience became publically scrutinized and “zero tolerance” emerged as the warning label to both staff and offenders. Even the notion of “no such thing as consensual sex” was tackled with a vengeance, and corrections leaders -- everywhere adults and juveniles were being held against their will -- were expected to aggressively take action by “making the prevention of prison rape a top priority.”

Fast forward to present day.

In 2014, after years of research, Commission hearings, and study, as well as the publication of the Attorney General’s approved PREA Standards, many states are on their way toward full implementation of policies and procedures, staff training, offender training, prevention plans, to include responsive architectural redesign, as well as changes to staffing patterns and cross gender supervision. Aggressive investigations and criminal prosecutions have helped to reinforce the promise of changing housing and supervision cultures.

In 2014, the unfamiliar PREA topic has become familiar, or should be, so front line officers find themselves providing orientation information to offenders about PREA and agency procedures, identifying known predators and victims, reporting incidents quickly and have the skills to recognize and preserve a crime scene.

Among those states, agency PREA coordinators are implementing audit schedules and checking facility procedures against important PREA standards language. National training is being made available to ensure consistency in standards interpretation and to assist with ways to correct deficiencies. Finally, in 2014, special prevention training and strategies are being developed with consideration for the LGBT population, who some experts believe may be the most vulnerable and at greatest risk for victimization.

Not all states have achieved the same success. Several have been slow to get on board, citing lack of resources, admitting they are not yet meeting all the standards, but are, none-the-less, making some progress. Finally, there are those states flatly refusing to comply with the federal law. The governors of Idaho, Texas, Indiana, Utah and Arizona have informed the U.S. Attorney’s Office they won’t try to meet the standards required, indicating prohibitive costs and the states’ rights argument. These states say they already have measures in place to reduce sexual victimization, including their own state laws. In doing so, they have indicated their willingness to accept a five percent penalty in federal funding for failure to comply.

Where does PREA go from here? Since Public Law 108-79 also applies to community-based agencies, there will likely be growing interest in furthering prevention, detection and reporting strategies outside agency lockups and in community settings as well. Data gathering will likely improve and additional resources will become within reach to raise awareness and protect America’s prison and community-based populations.

The subject of prison rape is no longer being avoided. Despite the fact several states are refusing to comply, most experts agree PREA, though not totally implemented across the U.S, is significantly progressing and providing hope to those most likely to be victimized.

Cherrie Greco is a retired correctional administrator and consultant, having provided technical assistance to a number of criminal justice agencies, including the U.S. Department of Justice, and the states of Colorado, Texas, Florida, Maine, Alabama, Connecticut and Oklahoma on the topics of the Americans With Disabilities Act, Amendment Act and the Prison Rape Elimination Act. During her career with the Colorado Department of Corrections, she served as Director of Administration, Warden, Legislative Liaison, and Director of Staff Training. In recent years, Greco served as a Senior Consultant for MGT of America and was the Director of Probation for Oklahoma County. She earned a B.A., Ed. from Northwestern Oklahoma State University and an M.A., Ed. from Lesley University, Cambridge, MA. Ms. Greco resides in Oklahoma. She has been a columnist for CORRECTIONSONE since 2011.