PREA National Standards: Symbol or Sword?
The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) was signed into law in 2003.(1) National prison and jail standards were enacted in 2012, nearly a decade after passage of PREA, and inexplicably late for the U.S. prison system which is long plagued by a sexual violence crisis.(2) PREA national standards carve a benchmark for prison administrators to prevent, detect and respond to prison sexual violence (PSV). Most significant are sweeping changes affecting documentation, accountability, confidentiality, post-sexual-assault medical care, testing for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and mental health counseling for PSV survivors.(3)
The PREA audits began in August 2013, and are supposed to occur at every youth and adult, state and private prison, jail, and holding facility every three years, with punitive forfeiture of federal funding at stake for lack of compliance. With 50% of documented PSV perpetrated by staff, prison administrators face greater liability through the transparency now mandated by PREA.(4)
One in ten prisoners are sexually abused, which is more than 200,000 youth and adults in prisons, jails and juvenile detention each year.(5, 6) Many are left to march the road to recovery, while coping with HIV, other STIs, mental trauma — the morbid souvenirs of rape.(7)
With PREA, the New York Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) started promoting "zero tolerance" propaganda. I felt (foolishly) that we were on the same side for once. I formed and launched a non-profit project with the goal to support, educate and advocate for PSV survivors, and those at risk. I especially focused on LGBTQI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender/sexual, Queer, Intersex) prisoners who are at 10-13 times higher risk to be victim of PSV, according to Department of Justice statistics. Not thinking I was doing anything "disallowed," I conducted this openly with no attempts to hide my activities.
However, DOCS took a radically different view, and launched an Inspector General Office investigation, forcing me (under duress) to cease and desist further activity with the project. But unable or unwilling to issue writeups on this issue, they instead launched a salvo of "unrelated" administrative charges, resulting in 18 months of keeplock (isolation). They also transferred me multiple times. I'm now serving 5 months keeplock time, which I'd already served at the last jail.
All this has only served to strengthen my commitment and resolve. Our efforts, in concert with NY ACLU, have yielded a settlement with DOCS to reduce the use of SHU/long-term isolation, with caps on sentences and exempting non-violent/safety-related offenses. It's a start but I'd have preferred a court ruling to this "voluntary" settlement, which the state can renege on.
PREA mandates the first round of audits as of August 2014, with statistics to be published online. This increased transparency is progress. Our Constitution and Bill of Rights are little more than an ideal or paper unless we facilitate their power through litigation, demanding compliance with these standards. PREA can be just a stack of papers and "feel good" hot wind, signifying nothing. Or it can be a keen sword to excise the cancers of prison sexual violence and prison staff corruption and negligence. The burden falls to us to proactively safeguard our interests, and our futures. Fight to Win!
MIM(Prisons) adds: We regularly receive reports of sexual assault from prisoners across the country. In September 2013, one year after the PREA standards were finalized, Prison Legal News published an article detailing incidents of PSV all across the country. This article underscores the futility of federal laws to actually protect people in custody of an oppressive state.
The 2013-2014 PREA Resource Center (PRC) report was just released this week. It contains no statistics on the efficacy of the project, but does contain a lot of fluff about the trainings and webinars that the PRC has been hosting.
It is a step in the right direction that this comrade, with the help of NY ACLU, was able to place some restriction on the use of isolation to protect prisoners from rape. The use of isolation has been reported by the American Friends Service Committee to have an even worse affect on the victims of prison rape, causing negative psychological effects due to isolation, and making the prisoner even more vulnerable to abuse by prison staff.(8)
While we can and should make use of laws to stop prison staff sexual violence when possible, we call on prisoners to step up and put an end to sexual violence among themselves using their own inherent power as humyn beings. The issue of prison rape is one that activists must tackle head on, as it impacts our ability to build unity behind prison walls, and is indicative of a wrongheaded line on gender oppression overall. Take an example from Men Against Sexism (MAS), an organization in Washington State Prison in the 1970s. MAS pushed men to treat each other with respect, opposed all prison rape even of very unpopular prisoners, and defended weaker prisoners against attacks by stronger ones.(9)
Gender oppression is a product of our patriarchal society, and neither federal laws nor prison organizations will put an end to all gender oppression in prison on their own. This gender oppression is another tool used to control oppressed nationalities, and won't be done away with until we overthrow the systems that require the oppression of entire groups of people — imperialism and capitalism. Only through revolution can we start to build a society where gender oppression, like class and national oppression, are torn down in our culture, economics, and all levels of social relations. For a basic study of gender under imperialism, we recommend the magazine MIM Theory 2/3, which we distribute for $5 or equivalent work trade. And see the 1998 MIM Congress resolution "Clarity on what gender is" for a more theoretical discussion on the origins of patriarchy and its structure today.