Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Eleven Years Too Late: It’s Time to Implement PREA

By Natrina Gandana

For the last two years, I have been studying and working on criminal justice reform. I’ve worked inside and outside prisons, advocating for reform in California. Now, I intern with the Justice Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. which has enabled me to immerse myself into the political and legislative parts of the justice system. 
(l-r) Amy Fettig, Liz Ryan, Elissa Rumsey, Joshua Delaney, Rudy Qazilbash  

So after attending the seven-hour long teach-in session on the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), Brenda V. Smith, a professor of law and director of the Project on Addressing Prison Rape asked the attendees two big questions – what have we learned and what are we going to do?

I had learned so much, facts and statistics ran through my head, while the names of individuals and stories weighed heavily. So when Professor Smith asked those questions, I knew what I was going to say. I walked up to the microphone, thanked all the speakers, and told everyone that they inspired me to fight for criminal justice reform. Before I could continue, Talila Lewis, founder of Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf (HEARD), yelled from the crowd, “You already ARE fighting!” Taken aback, I heard “woohs!” and claps from the audience, and I smiled.  

However, I wasn’t smiling during the event. This inspiring, but hard-to-swallow teach-in centered on the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). PREA passed unanimously in both houses of Congress and was signed into law by President Bush in 2003. It is a comprehensive initiative that establishes a zero tolerance policy for sexual assault in custody and requires the U.S. Department of Justice to enforce standards that detect, prevent, reduce and punish sexual assault in custody. The Justice Policy Institute, in collaboration with the conservative Hudson Institute, helped to make the legislation a reality. Despite JPI’s creation of a broad coalition in support of the law and its necessity, PREA’s potential was never fully realized.

The landmark law made waves when first introduced, but it has been stagnant ever since. 

It’s been 11 years and only two states are in full compliance with PREA standards. How is this possible when $50 million was funneled into state and federal institutions in order to achieve these goals? The reasons include bureaucratic holds (such as minimum staffing ratios giving states additional time to comply), resistance to and difficulty of enforcement, inefficient auditors, public humiliation and social ignorance.

Despite being a strong advocate for criminal justice reform, I am no way exempt from this ignorance. I knew very little about PREA and its lack of implementation. I learned that this instrumental initiative affects nearly every population inside prisons including, youth, the elderly, men, women, those with disabilities or mental health issues, and staff. My duty during the event was to live tweet as the JPI representative and take notes about PREA. I flooded my Twitter account with shocking statistics, bouncing between my phone and notebook, reeling from the wealth of knowledge coming from officials at the Justice Department, ACLU, Campaign for YouthJustice, Human Rights Watch, Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf (HEARD), and many more organizations.  

Here are the facts and figures that shocked me the most:

  • 3.2 percent of all people in jail report sexual violence within the last 12 months;
  • 4.0 percent of state and federal people incarcerated report sexual violence within the last 12 months;
  • 9.5 percent of youth in juvenile facilities report sexual violence within the last 12 months;
  • Juveniles in adult facilities are five times more likely to be sexually violated within the first 48 hours of incarceration;
  • 3.5 percent of males in prison who identify as heterosexual report sexual violence by a fellow incarcerated males;
  • 39 percent of males in prison who identify as homosexual report sexual violence by a fellow incarcerated males;
  • 76 percent of juveniles in adult jails/prison who are raped, are assaulted more than once.

In hearing all the statistics, I couldn’t help but think about the “code of silence,” the shame and humiliation that results from being sexually abused, and how this “code” is bound to create skewed statistics. Despite being startling already, these numbers only capture those people who have filed reports; just think about how many others have yet to speak up.

This is why PREA is so important. PREA offers a comprehensive guideline on how to educate, approach, and target sexual violence inside prisons, and is especially significant for youth in prison. PREA is one of a few tools available to juvenile defenders on the state and federal level. However, only 11 percent of juvenile defenders have been educated about PREA and only 25 percent has ever even heard of PREA.

It has been 11 years. It is time to implement PREA, and if the state and federal governments refuse to comply with these standards, it is the responsibility of the people to act as catalysts for change. The community is strong and is made up of the people who are fighting – fighting to implement PREA, fighting for the most marginalized and vulnerable members of society, fighting for justice. As a young person working for criminal justice reform, I will continue to keep fighting because we interns are the future of the field. I know there is a lot of work to be done, implementing PREA has been an uphill battle, but progress is still needed for the advancement of society and I plan to be part of the movement.

Note: For those of you who were not able to attend the PREA teach-in or watch live, a podcast recording of the event is available hereAdditionally, bios of presenters and all of the materials from the day’s event have also been made available here.

Natrina Gandana is the Communications Intern at JPI. Follow her on Twitter at @natrinagandana

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