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Women's Incarceration Rate Soars By Over 600 Percent as They Face Abuse Behind Bars

Abuse ranges from outright rape, groping, invasive pat-downs and peeping during showers -- to verbal taunts or harassing comments.

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It's impossible to know how many staff members abuse prisoners since most survivors are reluctant to report offenses to authorities. In fact, a report released by the Department of Justice (DOJ) in August 2012 estimated that one-third of all victimizations among the general public go unreported. If that's the case in the outside world, one can only imagine the underreporting by those who are incarcerated. That said, a 2007 DOJ survey of 40,419 inmates in 282 local jails revealed that 5.1 percent of women and 2.9 percent of men indicated that they had experienced one or more incidences of sexual violence while imprisoned. A second survey of 146 state and federal facilities revealed an overall rate of 4.5 percent, with no distinction for gender.


Enter the PREA, first passed in 2003 and signed into law by George W. Bush. The law articulates a zero-tolerance policy for the sexual assault of inmates. It also establishes uniform standards for detection, prevention and punishment of violators. The first US legislation to tackle this issue, it applies to federal and state facilities for adults, youth and immigrants facing deportation.


Amy Fettig, staff counsel at the National Prison Project of the ACLU, calls PREA "a revolution in the way we deal with what happens behind bars." While not every advocate is as enthusiastic as Fettig, she believes that the recently published final rules are an important tool in making prisons more humane for both prisoners and staff. "The standards recognize that prisoners usually come back to their communities," she begins. "If they've been so brutalized that they can't become productive members of society, it hurts everyone. If prisoners are badly damaged, their pathologies grow, and this sometimes leads to a return to prison or bad public safety outcomes for the community."


Fettig said that historically, prisons were monitored for environmental safety - things like whether they were clean and abided by fire laws - but few, if any, paid attention to allegations of abuse. PREA changed that, she argues,  by establishing the eight-member PREA Commission, which includes human rights and legal experts, to hold hearings and then make recommendations to DOJ. "The commission recognized that, until recently, the ideology was to blame the victim and assume that she must have wanted the abuse if she did not fight back. The commission's recommendations are a first attempt to regulate what happens behind prison walls, and if they are adopted, it will change the tolerance of abuse." Beginning in August 2013, governors will be required to allow independent auditors to monitor conditions and must report the auditor's findings to DOJ every three years. Fettig believes this will hold prison officials accountable, at least in the state facilities under the governors' jurisdiction.


Other advocates, however, are skeptical about PREA's impact. "For meaningful auditing to occur," Dori Lewis and Veronica Vela of the Legal Aid Society's Prisoners' Rights Project wrote to the PREA Commission "auditors must be trained to look behind protestations of compliance by jail and prison officials and assess whether actual compliance with the standards is being accomplished." They also argue that cameras - in cells, hallways and closets - are imperative, and lambaste PREA for failing to mandate their installation.


Then there's the issue of corroboration and whether prison officials will believe incarcerated complainants or side with their own colleagues. Lewis and Vela are dubious that coworkers will turn one another in. "It is clear to us that staff interprets their obligation to report as being triggered only when they observed actual sexual touching," their letter to the commission continues. "They did not believe that seeing an officer give a particular prisoner cigarettes or other gifts, or whispering to a particular prisoner in close proximity for long periods about personal matters, was enough to trigger the duty [to report what they saw]. The fact is that sexual contact almost always happens in private: If a duty to report is to mean anything, then indicia of an improper relationship must also be reported."

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