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Feds publish standards to eliminate prison sex abuse

The U.S. Justice Department on May 17 published the first-ever national standards aimed at eliminating sexual abuse in prisons, jails and detention centers.

“The standards we establish today reflect the fact that sexual assault crimes committed within our correctional facilities can have devastating consequences – for individual victims and for communities far beyond our jails and prisons,” said U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. “These standards are the result of a thoughtful and deliberative process – and represent a critical step forward in protecting the rights and safety of all Americans.”

The Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 mandated the standards with which the U.S. Bureau of Prisons must now begin compliance. State and local facilities must begin compliance in a year.

An estimated 216,000 inmates are sexually abused in U.S. prisons and detention centers each year. A Justice Department report released May 17 indicated that almost one in 10 former state prisoners were sexually abused during incarceration.

The rates are even higher for LGBT inmates – gay and bisexual men are 10 times more likely to victims of sexual abuse by other inmates, while lesbian and bisexual women reported rates of staff abuse or misconduct double that of straight female inmates.

The new standards require that facilities:

• Develop and maintain a zero-tolerance policy regarding sexual abuse.

• Designate a point person to coordinate compliance efforts.

• Screen inmates for risk of being sexually abused or sexually abusive, and use screening information to inform housing, bed, work, education and program assignments.

• Develop and document a staffing plan that provides for adequate levels of staffing and, where applicable, video monitoring.

• Train employees on their responsibilities in preventing, recognizing and responding to sexual abuse.

• Perform background checks on prospective employees.

• Prevent juveniles from being housed with adult inmates or having unsupervised contact with adult inmates in common spaces.

• Ban cross-gender pat-down searches of female inmates in prisons and jails and of both male and female residents of juvenile facilities.

• Enable inmates to shower, go to the bathroom and change clothing without improper viewing by staff of the opposite gender.

• Enter into or renew contracts only with outside entities that agree to comply with the standards.

The Justice Department standards specifically address the needs of LGBT inmates, requiring staff training on issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity and requiring that investigators consider anti-LGBT bias as the motive in incidents.

The standards do not allow placement of LGBT inmates into segregated facilities unless it is to protect the inmates.

The Human Rights Campaign, responding with praise for the final standards, stressed, “Despite the strength of these standards, they will only be effective if they are fully implemented. Committed corrections leadership, strong policies and sound practices, can end this abuse.”

The American Civil Liberties Union said the new regulations protect child and adult prisoners, including LGBT inmates, but it is unclear whether there will be adequate protection for immigration detainees. The Department of Homeland Security was tasked with creating its own PREA regulations, and the ACLU called DHS’ record of preventing sex abuse in detention facilities “abysmal.”

“The administration has further delayed and left unclear whether hundreds of thousands of immigration detainees – overwhelmingly Latinos – who are annually confined in DHS detention facilities will receive adequate protection,” said ACLU legislative counsel Joanne Lin.

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