Earlier this month, the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission met in Boston, Massachusetts for its second public hearing of the year to discuss the impact that prison rape and attempts at such activity have on juvenile offenders. In March, the NPREC, which is comprised of judges, attorneys, private consultants, and those in the academic and nonprofit communities, gathered in Miami, Florida for the corrections' perspective to this pervasive challenge.
Under the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, the NPREC was charged with studying federal, state, and local government policies and practices regarding the prevention, detection and punishment of prison sexual assaults. Its mission includes legal and factual study on the issue and its effect on federal, state, and local governments, communities, and social institutions.
“Our hearings focus on the particular aspects of the problem, and on June 1st we discussed the impact that prison rape or attempts to commit prison rape has on juvenile offenders and on juveniles in adult facilities. While we had statistics that this problem is greater on this population compared to others, we were seeking how to best protect them,” says NPREC Chairman Reggie Walton, who is also a Washington, DC district judge.
Juveniles were June's focus because, according to research by the U.S. Department of Justice conducted in conjunction with the hearings, this population is five times more likely to report being sexually assaulted when incarcerated with adults compared to being held in juvenile facilities.
Youth held in juvenile facilities are also subject to such abuse. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported that in 2004 juvenile facilities had the highest rates of sexual abuse by corrections personnel. More than 2,800 instances of this violence committed by officials and offenders were reported during that year.
Stop Prison Rape, an advocacy group that has sought to end sexual violence against adult and juvenile offenders since 1980, provides victim testimony for the hearings, and presented two abuse victims for June's inquiry. SRP also read from some of the 10 to 15 letters it claims to receive weekly from inmates about their experience with assault, threats and rape.
“We are a watch-dog group to ensure that as much as possible is being done to support PREA,” says Kathy Hall-Martinez, a co-executive director for Stop Prison Rape. “PREA and these hearings address the issue that despite that fact that rape is going on, and it's against the law, not enough was being done to prevent this. With the prison culture of silence among inmates and corrections officials about this issue, we need to find a way to encourage more people to speak up and act if the situation is to improve.”
Both Walton and Hall-Martinez say they see this issue moving in the right direction due to these hearings and the work of other organizations that support PREA's mission.
“Inevitably things are improving,” Walton emphasizes. “The legislation has forced the prison industry to focus on itself. There's an attempt being made now to discover the extent of the problem. We know what the problem is, but people don't have a grasp on how big it might be.”
Hall-Martinez adds that it might be too early to assess PREA's progress, but believes that progress has been made.
“We see that various agencies involved in this are really pulling their weight and pushing it forward. The National Institute of Corrections, for example, is doing a lot of important training. They're charged under PREA to provide information, and they hit the ground running and have done a terrific job,” she says.
The NIC is providing information on implementing PREA and obtaining related grants and research. It also hosts focus groups, links to upcoming broadcasts (like "How the Prison Rape Elimination Act Affects the Juvenile Justice System," on June 28), and training seminars.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics as well has been involved in a long process of collecting data to measure the incidence and prevalence of sexual assault within correctional facilities nationwide. In 2005, it surveyed authorities to better understand what they knew about incidents in their facilities, how they came to know about them, and what they did when they found out about an allegation.
According to BJS Chief, Alan Beck, his office will soon make available two reports on these findings, one analyzing incidents involving inmates in adult facilities, and one on incidents in juvenile facilities.
“We did a large scale data collection that took information from a variety of institutions. We sampled 10 percent of each of the following groups: local jails, privately-operated jails, facilities operated by the U.S military, state juvenile facilities, and privately run juvenile facilities,” explains Beck.
Last year, Beck's survey was to obtain summary data on allegations by the type of incident. In upcoming surveys, Beck will retrieve more specific information. By collecting data, like the level of force used during a particular incident, and the details of sexual abuse that was reported to correctional authorities, he hopes to help the commission understand the circumstances surrounding this violence.
The newer surveys will be more of a challenge for BJS because they rely on specific information from inmates. This can be difficult to obtain since this population is hesitant to report their experiences. Beck's new strategy will address these issues.
“BJS will start self-surveys, first to adults and then juveniles. They will be designed to ensure that inmates feel secure in taking these surveys. We're planning on being involved in terms of helping to provide a resource for survivors who might be in distress after taking this survey,” says Hall-Martinez.
Congress has ordered BJS to survey at least on jail and one prison in every state. According to Beck, adult surveys will begin this November and December, pending approval from the Office of Management and Budget.
“Facilities will be randomly selected and then notified at the latest practical date. We recognize that these interviews will be potentially disruptive, so we certainly will work with every sample facility to ensure the operations are minimally disrupted. We also want to ensure safety of staff, and give them enough lead time to prepare,” he adds.
Interviews will be completely anonymous in order to create as comfortable an environment as possible. To encourage people to come forward, there will be no humans interviewing inmates. The sampled inmates will be asked to sit in a kiosk and complete the survey with a touch screen. An audio feed will be available to address literacy issues.
To provide further anonymity and protection, random surveys on other topics will be offered, so not all participants will take the 15 to 30 minute sexual assault questionnaire. Beck hopes these conditions will encourage people to come forward with those incidents not yet reported, and to report on sexual violence incidents that may have occurred within the last twelve months.
“Our work is to track who is responding and who's not. We'll get a roster of inmates and we'll choose a sample of every inmate who slept at the facility the night before the survey. This is voluntary, so a certain bracket will choose not to participate. For those who don't, we will get their characteristics and compare them to those of participants, which will help us refine our estimates,” Beck says.
He estimates interviewing approximately 60,000 adults and 13,000 to 15,000 juveniles. Beck plans to have the adult survey results available in June 2007.
The juvenile survey will prove to be more challenging. Parental consent will be required and the questions need to be composed differently from the adult survey. Beck says the BJS needs to ensure that the questions are not too complicated and must be sensitive enough to avoid traumatizing the kids.
He expects the juvenile portion of the survey to be rolled out in early 2007, with its results published the following fall.
“We're interviewing former inmates too. Despite our best efforts to encourage inmates to come forward, they might refuse because of fear of reprisal, and a lack of belief in the confidentiality,” Beck explains. “When they're out, they might be more forthcoming, so we're developing a national survey for recent ex-offenders under active custody supervision. By exploring this issue from all angles we will gain more information and be more confident that our survey results will be as complete as possible.”
In the meantime, the NPREC will continue to hold public hearings to gain more of its own information. Walton says hearings set for early August in Detroit will deal with investigating and prosecuting prison rape. Others are set for October, December and next spring, which will address immigration detention, and the standards the commission must submit to Congress and President Bush.
Resources: The National Institute of Corrections and its project partners, The American University and The Moss Group, Inc., are talking with corrections agencies about prisoner sexual assault and abuse. NIC explores agencies' views and shares information to help agencies understand this issue. For more information, contact Dee Halley, NIC Special Projects Division, 800.995.6423, ext. 4-0374, firstname.lastname@example.org.