In Effort to End Prison Rape, Questions About a Monitor’s Independence

http://feeds.propublica.org/~r/propublica/main/~3/7LwOAghaMy4/

by Joaquin Sapien

After more than a decade of
national legislative efforts to end prison rape, this month was supposed to
produce a significant victory: formal audits of prisons and jails around the
country that would more reliably chronicle incidents of sex abuse and the
consequences for its perpetrators.
But that moment of possible
progress has turned out to be more complicated than many had hoped. The first
round of audits will be chiefly conducted by the American Correctional
Association (ACA), the very organization that has been criticized over the
years for failing to identify and address safety problems at prisons across the
country.
The
ACA, based in Virginia, performs an array of
services for the corrections industry: it provides training for guards and
other officials, hosts conferences, and lobbies in Washington. But it is
perhaps best known for its accreditation service. Prison officials pay the
organization to evaluate facilities on issues such as inmate healthcare,
sanitation, food service, and personnel training. ACA’s blessing is sought, in part, to
help prisons defend against inmate lawsuits.
Now, as part of legislation aimed at
reducing the incidence of sexual assaults in prison, the ACA will be responsible
for helping make sure the state and federal adult prisons and juvenile
detention centers it accredits are properly investigating allegations of sexual
abuse, disciplining guards and inmates and providing appropriate medical
attention to victims.
The
development has dismayed some of those involved in improving the safety of the
country’s prisons.
“If
some group were closely tied to the police, would you really go to them to
complain about police brutality?” asked Jack Beck, a director of the
Correctional Association of New York, a non-profit organization dedicated to
prison reform efforts.
“This
is a way to manage this whole thing so it’s not going to rock the boat too
much,” Beck said.
The
American Correctional Association has yet to respond to questions for this
story. If they do, we’ll post an update.
Rep.
Bobby Scott, D-Va., who helped author the national legislation, known as
the Prison Rape Elimination Act,
said he is comfortable with ACA handling the work.
“It’s
the natural organization to do the audits,” Scott said. “If they turn out not to be that
aggressive, then it will become a problem. But I don’t think it’s a problem
now. These people have a lot
invested in their professionalism.”
The
U.S. Justice Department, which played a critical role in the development of the
legislation, sent a four-page
statement in response to questions for this story. It said the first group
of auditors were “handpicked” but did not address the concerns about the
propriety of ACA conducting the sex abuse audits. The department said mandatory
training sessions will be required for all auditors, no matter who they work
for.
Over
the years, the ACA’s work for the country’s prisons and jails has been
scrutinized by federal courts and occasionally found wanting.
In
January 1999, a U.S. District Court in Texas presided over a lawsuit filed by
prisoners who claimed they were abused by guards and other inmates. After a
three-week-long fact-finding hearing, the court found that constitutional
violations were widespread, this despite the fact that the state’s prisons
were accredited by the ACA.
The
court found that inmates in Texas state prisons lived “under conditions
allowing a substantial risk of physical and sexual abuse from other inmates, as
well as malicious and sadistic use of force by correctional officers.” Further,
the court determined that the state “failed to take reasonable measures to
protect vulnerable inmates from other, predatory prisoners and overzealous,
physically aggressive state employees.”
Courts
have come to similar conclusions about the conditions in ACA accredited prisons
in California and Florida.
Amy
Fettig, senior staff counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said such
a track record undercuts the ACA’s
credibility as an effective agent in the push to truly limit sexual violence in
the country’s prisons. Fettig and other advocates are now pushing the Justice
Department to expand its pool of potential auditors to include options other
than the ACA.
Those
options could include judges or lawyers or other organizations with expertise
in corrections issues. The ACLU, which does not accept government funding,
would not be a candidate.
“We
have to make sure these audits are part of a meaningful process. Otherwise
we’re missing an opportunity to create more humane facilities,” Fettig said.
The
push to address sexual assaults in prison – violence that included
inmates and corrections officers as well – began decades ago, and was marked
by setbacks and years of delay.
In
1968, an activist named Tom Cahill was arrested at an anti-war protest and sent
to a San Antonio jail, where he says he was serially raped and beaten over the
course of 24 hours. Afterward, he dedicated his life to ending such violence
behind bars. He staged a 60-day hunger strike outside of San Quentin, wrote
countless letters to lawmakers, and started a non-profit organization called
Stop Prison Rape.
In
the 1990s, Cahill gained the attention of Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., who, in
partnership with Scott, began work
on drafting and adopting legislation.
In
1998, legislation was introduced in Congress seeking a wide range of reforms
and requirements, including better training for prison personnel and clear
accountability and investigative measures. The legislation never made it to a
floor vote.
But
in 2003, similar legislation won greater backing and resulted in the formal prison
rape act.
The
measure called for the establishment of a national commission comprised of
advocates and corrections officials. The commission was supposed to examine the
problem and recommend a set of standards in two years. It took five.
The
commission released a report
in 2009, and at that point the Justice Department was supposed to adopt and
enforce rules based on the commission’s recommendations within a year. It took
three.
The
final rules were released in June 2012. They called for zero tolerance of
sexual abuse in prisons, increased training for corrections staff, and required
independent audits for all confinement facilities once every three years.
Still,
the requirements apply to all federal facilities. States can choose to abide by them or not, but risk losing federal funding if they do not. The legislation calls for a 5 percent reduction in federal financing for any state

found to fall short in the reform effort.
But
following the law will cost states money, too. Some prison systems will have to
overhaul their surveillance systems, hire more staff, and implement new
mechanisms for inmates to report sex abuse. Some governors may decide that,
given the expense of reform, they would rather accept the budget reduction
instead.
The
Justice Department hasn’t made public which states have agreed to comply and
which haven’t. The first audit was conducted last week at a federal prison in
West Virginia; the next two will take place at federal facilities in
Pennsylvania and Illinois.
Advocates
involved in pushing for the legislation are mostly proud of the final outcome,
but feel it didn’t need to take so long.
“The
Prison Rape Elimination Act and standards are both real milestones in the fight
to once and for all eliminate sexual abuse in detention. Having said that I
feel it’s a real shame that we had to fight so long and so hard for the PREA
standards,” said Lovisa Stannow, who now heads the Los Angeles-based Just
Detention International, which evolved out of the non-profit that Cahill
started decades ago.
“These
standards should have been developed more quickly, and it would’ve been
possible to get them done more quickly if we hadn’t been up against really
intense corrections opposition for many years.”
Stannow
and other advocates have pledged to monitor the first round of audits vigilantly for any signs of leniency.
“I think we are cautiously optimistic,”
said Chris Daley, Just Detention International’s representative in Washington,
who also pointed out that facilities are given a deadline to correct any flaws
identified by the audits. “That’s an indication that the audits aren’t just
about transparency but transforming the environment within a facility so that
the regulations aren’t just policies but actual practices.”

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