U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder last Thursday released a comprehensive mandate to guide the rolling out of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, passed in 2003 but which has lacked national standards for implementation. The rules will immediately go into effect in all federal prisons, and states will have one year to comply or could face a loss of federal funding.
To coincide with the regulations, the Bureau of Justice Statistics last week released the results of a survey of former state inmates, which found that 39 percent of gay male inmates had been sexually victimized, compared with 3.5 percent of heterosexual male inmates.
Among the stipulations in the new rules is the provision that facilities must operate a zero-tolerance policy against prison rape, and strengthen LGBT protections. Facilities must now evaluate incoming transgender inmates for gender-segregated housing on a case-by-case basis, as opposed to simply relying on biological sex.
Shawn Hawes, public-information officer for the Philadelphia Prison System, said the local system already has a zero-tolerance policy and currently conducts medical and psychological evaluations to determine proper housing for LGBT inmates.
Leon King, openly gay former Philadelphia Prison Commissioner, said the strengthened trans protections in the regulations are one of the most noteworthy aspects of the order.
“That’s a very important issue because there’s often a longstanding prison tradition that if you have a penis you go with the men, and if you have a vagina you go with the women. But that’s old thinking,” he said. “We always talked about, if you look like a woman, you talk like a woman, you have breasts and you’re taking drugs to make you look more like a woman, but you have a penis, why would you be housed with men? We can’t assume that that would be the safest thing for everyone. So it’s really good that this should be done on a case-by-case basis.”
The regulations further require that all agencies must train employees on respectful searches of trans and intersex inmates, who will now be given the option to shower separately from other inmates. Agencies will also be prohibited from segregating LGBT inmates to the same section of housing.
When cases of alleged sexual victimization do arise, agencies will not be permitted to advise an informal resolution of the grievance, and inmates cannot be asked to file the complaint with an alleged abuser. The regulations also order that no time limit be imposed on the filing of a grievance.
Hawes said PPS is already in compliance with the majority of the regulations, although the system will need to designate a PREA compliance coordinator and expand its video-surveillance system.
When an incident is alleged in PPS, Hawes said the prison contacts the Philadelphia Police Department, the victim is transported to a local hospital for a rape kit and the investigation is handled by police.
In 2011, 19 total alleged sexual assaults were reported in Philadelphia prisons — nine of which were inmate-on-inmate attacks, and the rest of which were attacks on inmates by staff. Eight of the 10 alleged staff-initiated incidents occurred at Riverside Correctional Facility.
The prisons use a definition of sexual assault that includes “rape, any acts or attempts to commit acts which involve sexual contact, sexual abuse or assault, intentional touching, either directly or through clothing of the genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thighs or buttocks.”
King noted that it’s difficult to know how pervasive sexual victimization really is, as many victims may be unwilling to come forward.
“People are afraid to report it, so it’s hard to get a handle on how widespread it really is,” King said.
While King said the rule helps “raise the profile” of sexual victimization, it will take commitment from the federal administration and facilities to ensure proper implementation.
“The question is the audit and training, and how well this will be enforced,” King said. “It’s great to have policies like this but if no one’s auditing them and making sure they’re working, then they’re meaningless.”
The success of the LGBT provisions will also be contingent upon a concentrated effort on modernizing the prison environment for LGBT people.
“It’s hard to change the culture of an institution so it’s very important that people keep on the Federal Bureau of Prisons to do that,” he said. “It’s great to train employees on LGBT issues and on having sensitivity toward LGBT inmates, but if the inmates don’t feel comfortable coming in and revealing that information, it’s a bunch of nonsense. People are scared to death to tell anyone they’re gay and that’s what we need to be working to change so these policies can really be effective.”
Jen Colletta can be reached at email@example.com.