NC corrections officials try to navigate prison rape laws

Between 2011 and 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, 4 percent of inmates reported sexual assault

News & Record

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Jails in Guilford County are on track to comply with federal regulations designed to curb prison rape, months ahead of the deadline.

But officials, trying to navigate the complex labyrinth of red tape without guidance from the state or the federal government, won’t know whether they’re complying correctly until a third-party auditor visits the county, most likely later this year.

“We think we’re doing it right in aligning our policies, but what if we miss the mark?” asked Major Chuck Williamson, who oversees the county’s two jails for the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office. “There’s no regulatory body in the state to help the jails with this. There’s no structure. It’s difficult to work under.”

The federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, or PREA, was passed unanimously by Congress in 2003 after years of lobbying by human rights groups. Prison rape had been a known problem for decades and reports from various advocacy groups had occasionally led to unsuccessful efforts to pass federal legislation.

The tipping point, according to reports, was a 2001 study released by Human Rights Watch titled “No Escape: Male Rape in U.S. Prisons.” Researchers interviewed 200 prisoners from 37 states, all of whom had been sexually assaulted while incarcerated. The report included detailed first-person accounts but focused mostly on the systemic failure of prison administrators to address and prevent rape in confinement facilities.

“I told the officer,” a 16-year-old Arkansas prisoner wrote of a sexual assault. “But they didn’t do anything about it.”

A Texas inmate shared another story.

“(My cellmate) was younger, stronger than I and larger,” he wrote. “He introduced himself as a bisexual and was for two weeks touchie-feelie. I had to scream/yell at him to stop. ... He became more difficult to deal with and started to threaten me.

“Finally, one day he attacked me.”

Though the legislation passed unanimously, it took until 2012 — nearly 10 years — for federal officials to release compliance standards to help correctional facilities implement changes to prevent rape.

Across North Carolina, prisons and jails began the slow work of coming into compliance with those rules, comprised of 43 main standards with more than 300 subparts.

One rule, for example, is that juvenile prisoners and adult inmates must be housed separately. Also when conducting body searches, correctional officials should try to pair prisoners with law enforcement officers of the same gender.

Guilford County must be in compliance by August, and some of that work was simple, according to Williamson. For instance, juveniles were already housed in quarters separate from adult inmates.

But other things, most notably stringent PREA training requirements for all jail workers, have been more difficult.

“That’s a big job,” Williamson said. “It’s a 24-hour facility. We have maintenance workers that come in. We have ministers, commissary providers, food-service providers — the list goes on and all those people have to have that training on an annual basis.”

To help with that work, the mandate requires that correctional facilities appoint a full-time PREA coordinator. Problem is, Guilford County does not receive federal money for PREA efforts, so the sheriff’s office converted an existing position to handle the work.

“Honestly, we probably couldn’t spare that position, but we had to comply,” Williamson said. “That person has to provide four hours of training for 340 officers in the detention facility and another 200 volunteers and contractors. It’s a full-time job.”

At the county level, the need for the mandate is questionable. It, Williamson said, was designed mostly for federal and state prisons, where sexual assault is more of a problem than at county jails.

“They were looking to address the problem at places where inmates were staying in custody for years,” Williamson explained. “Our average length of stay is 16 days. The longer you stay and get acclimated, the greater the possibility is that (rape) could happen. In our jails, inmates still hold out hope that they’re going to be back on the street soon, so the mindset is different.”

As part of PREA, Guilford County added 24-hour phones to the jails to allow inmates to immediately report sexual assaults. None have been reported since the phones were installed.

Federal statistics tell a different story. Between 2011 and 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, 4 percent of state and federal prison inmates reported experiencing one or more incidents of sexual victimization, compared to 3.2 percent of inmates in jails.

But those statistics also show that rape exists at all, regardless of size or jurisdiction, said Keith Acree, a spokesman for the N.C. Department of Public Safety.

“It’s a problem everywhere,” Acree said. “It would make sense that in a facility where you’re there longer, you have a tendency to develop relationships. But it’s certainly not nonexistent in smaller jails.”

It’s also likely that rape within prison walls, as in the outside world, is underreported.

Advocacy groups have said that more than 200,000 inmates are raped each year, but prisoners who seek help after being sexually assaulted can face retaliation from the correctional staff or other inmates. Studies have shown that within a confinement facility, rape is more about power than sexual release.

Because of that, more vulnerable populations of inmates — particularly juveniles and prisoners with mental illness or psychiatric issues — are most at risk of being assaulted by other inmates as well as facility staff.

Homosexual prisoners were more than three times as likely to be sexually assaulted by other inmates, according to federal statistics.

For prisoners with serious psychological distress, the likelihood was almost double.

Those dynamics are less likely to be as severe in county jails, where prisoners stay for short periods of time and don’t form lasting relationships, county officials said.

It’s also harder for inmates to fraternize at newer jails, such as the one in downtown Greensboro, which were designed specifically to allow more oversight by corrections officers.

“It’s not a problem here because we don’t allow it,” Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes said. “But it is a problem in federal and state prisons and some jails where the line of sight and the oversight by correctional officers is just not there. It has become an issue.”

The federal compliance standards are dense and complex, and county jail officials are left to figure it out mostly on their own.

The N.C. Department of Public Safety has a full-time PREA office, but that department oversees only the state prison system — though officials there will answer questions for county employees as they arise, said Charlotte Jordan-Williams, the PREA director for the state.

“We have no official regulatory role with county jails unless a county has an agreement with the Department of Public Safety,” Jordan-Williams said.

Which makes it difficult to know whether a correctional facility is fully up to speed on the mandate, Williamson said. According to the federal regulations, the only official measure of PREA compliance is a third-party audit. A third of the confinement facilities in every state must undergo that process each year.

Guilford County has until next August to schedule an audit, which Williamson said will most likely occur in the upcoming budget cycle.

The cost of compliance is unclear. The county has received estimates ranging from $10,000 to $20,000, which it must pay out of pocket. It’s possible that the county could lose part of its funding from the U.S. Department of Justice if it’s not in compliance, but Williamson isn’t so sure.

“I think we’re headed in the right direction,” he said. “We meet regularly to go over our policies and we’re fairly sure that we’re meeting it, but there are a lot of unanswered questions.”

Copyright 2016 the News & Record

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