Are You Ready for Your Next PREA Audit?

by | April 1, 2024

Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) unanimously in 2003 with one ambitious goal: to “provide for the analysis of the incidence and effects of prison rape in federal, state, and local institutions and to provide information, resources, recommendations and funding to protect individuals from prison rape.” In addition to rape, PREA was also meant to help reduce sexual abuse and sexual harassment in corrections facilities. The PREA Standards, the regulations governing facilities subject to the Prison Rape Elimination Act, require these operations to be audited at least once every three years by a qualified auditor.

The primary goal of PREA audits, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice, is ensure the following:

  1. Sexual safety is a clear priority among facility and agency staff.
  2. All staff and inmates understand that sexual abuse and sexual harassment will not be tolerated and that when incidents occur, they will be reported.
  3. Inmates are aware of and understand their rights under PREA.
  4. Staff and inmates feel safe reporting sexual abuse and sexual harassment.
  5. Vulnerability to sexual abuse and sexual harassment is taken into account when making programming and housing decisions.
  6. Assessments about the credibility of reports are made on a case-by-case basis and are not influenced by the reporter’s status as an inmate or staff member.
  7. All reports of sexual abuse and sexual harassment are objectively, promptly and thoroughly investigated. There is no retaliation for reporting incidents or suspicions of sexual abuse and sexual harassment.
  8. The facility quickly and effectively addresses inmate victims’ emotional, psychological and physical needs.

PREA documentation uses the term “inmate,” but the standards apply to all persons held in confinement, whether they’re called inmates, detainees, prisoners or residents. For simplicity, we’ll generally use the term “inmate.”

If you work at a facility subject to PREA audits, you may be thinking, “Well, of course we’re ready for our next audit! Our agency sets clear boundaries with inmates, and we have a policy that conforms to PREA standards. But I’m not the PREA coordinator, so I don’t have to worry about it too much.” While that’s a pleasant dream, it’s far from realistic.

Whether it’s your facility’s first audit or a process you’ve been through before, every employee in every confinement facility has a role in preparing for a PREA audit. The PREA Standards require extensive coordination and cooperation with audits, so everyone at your facility — from volunteers to top administrators—should be trained on and continually practice compliance with them.

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Why a PREA Audit?

Many people tend to think of “jail rape” or “prison rape” in a simplistic way: one inmate sexually abusing another inmate. While that is the most common scenario, jail and prison rape can also be perpetrated by staff, volunteers and contractors working in any type of confinement facility. And even though it’s tempting to think this an extremely rare occurrence — after all, why would someone risk their career to get sexual gratification from an inmate, detainee or resident? — that’s not necessarily the case.

Pay attention to the news and you’ll find plenty of examples of corrections employees (as well as vendors, contractors, volunteers, and others) violating PREA by sexually abusing or assaulting inmates they are charged with supervising. And it’s not just the abusers who are in violation of PREA Standards — it’s also those who knew about or suspected the abuse and did nothing to stop it.

And that, of course, is the whole intent of PREA: To eliminate sexual abuse in confinement through education, procedures and removing opportunities within a confinement facility.

“Corrections facilities and the people who staff them have a moral and statutory obligation to ensure the PREA Standards are understood and followed.”

Intent of the PREA Standards

For adult facilities, PREA includes dozens of standards (the actual number depends on the type of facility). Together, the standards have three clear goals regarding sexual safety for those in confinement. These include preventing, detecting and responding to all allegations of sexual abuse within covered facilities.

1. Prevention
PREA requirements address prevention in several major ways. Screening who is hired, who is allowed to volunteer and who has access to correctional facilities is paramount.

The PREA Standards provide guidance on examining the background of individuals who serve in jails and prisons — both paid staff and volunteers. They also set forth the minimum amount of training anyone entering the facility should receive regarding the prevention of sexual abuse and provide guidance for background checks of those going through the promotion process.

Screening of inmates is equally important. A comprehensive intake screening that assesses the risk of victimization (or the risk of being a victimizer) is a key component in prevention. This screening information helps facility personnel make informed decisions regarding classification and housing.

Prevention can also be achieved by understanding the physical layout of a facility. Let’s face it: The people who work there every day know the layout well. They’re probably most qualified to help identify areas that could be considered “blind spots.” It’s important that these areas be checked, watched or even eliminated in the facility. During a PREA audit, the auditor will do a thorough tour of the facility, looking for these hidden places and how risk can be mitigated through facility upgrades and monitoring technology.

Some other examples of preventive steps an auditor will look for during a PREA audit include:

  • How inmates are educated about sexual abuse and reporting.
  • How the facility limits cross-sex viewing and searches.
  • How staff announces that someone of the opposite sex is entering the housing unit.

2. Detection

At least six weeks before a PREA auditor arrives, a notice should be posted in all housing areas of the facility that provides the date of the audit and ways for inmates to contact the auditor about any concerns they have regarding their sexual safety in the facility.

Auditors also typically check and test systems for inmate reporting of sexual abuse. For example, inmates should have access to a telephone (free of charge and monitoring) that allows them to report allegations to an outside confidential support service. The facility must also have a policy in place that allows third parties to submit complaints on behalf of alleged victims.

But it’s not just about having systems in place. Every jail employee, contractor, vendor and volunteer has a duty to watch for warning signs of sexual abuse among inmates, staff members and others. Taking allegations seriously, and ensuring all allegations are referred for investigation, is the essence of detection.

3. Response

Its very name indicates PREA was intended to eliminate rape, sexual assault and abuse in confinement through a zero-tolerance policy. While it’s doubtful any legislation, regulation or corrections initiative could end such sexual abuse completely, the PREA Standards can address what happens when prevention fails but detection is successful. The steps taken by corrections leaders to respond to these incidents is indicative of their level of professionalism and commitment to ensuring the safety of staff and inmates.

In a PREA audit, auditors review how a facility’s leaders have responded to allegations of sexual assault. They also examine how standards help define first responder duties. Additionally, they set forth protocols for collecting evidence, performing forensic medical examinations and conducting investigations. The standards provide guidance on incident reviews and how staff members must protect victims from their abusers. Finally, this third pillar of the PREA Standards mandates procedures for data collection on incidents, allegations and investigations, and how records are maintained.

The Process

A PREA audit involves two main stages: the policy review and the on-site visit. During the policy review, which takes place prior to the site visit, the auditor reviews the PREA Standards and ensures the facility has a policy that addresses — and complies with — each one.

During the site visit, the auditor takes a full tour of the facility (including the grounds and works) to gain an understanding of inmate movement and daily life. This is likely where you, the corrections staff member, get involved. Auditors choose inmates, staff and volunteers at random to interview. It’s only by talking to stakeholders — including inmates — that auditors can determine whether the policy is being followed in day-to-day operations.

Should you be chosen for one of these interviews, you should be ready to explain the PREA training you have received. You will also likely get questions about daily procedures and routines in the facility. This could include addressing how cross-sex searches and viewing are handled, how staff responds to incidents, the announcements (or lack of announcements) of cross-sex staff in a housing unit, the screening of inmates and other preventive measures.

Realistic Expectations

Even if you and your facility are just getting started on PREA implementation, if your facility uses and follows Lexipol corrections policies, you have a head start because these state-specific policies are written and maintained to be fully compliant with the PREA Standards. Of course, just having a policy in place is not enough — when preparing for a PREA audit, you must ensure the policy is also the practice. And make sure you’re referencing the appropriate standards — PREA Standards are facility-type specific and there are important nuances to each. You can read more about the standards (along with frequently asked questions) at

The main purpose of a PREA audit is not to say “Gotcha!” or to catch anyone doing something wrong. Auditors and those who oversee PREA understand the real world. They have ample experience in facilities and rarely expect them to be fully compliant on the first go-round. Rather, they anticipate that by the end of the facility visit, they’ll be able to identify an area or two for improvement. The auditor will prepare an interim report and provide action items to be addressed during a corrective period, which can be last up to 180 days. Auditors also provide guidance to facilities to help them achieve full compliance by the end of the period.

“Whether it’s your facility’s first audit or a process you’ve been through before, every employee in every corrections institution has a role in preparing for a PREA audit.”

Individual Preparation

Your facility’s PREA coordinator will take the lead in preparing for a PREA audit, but there are a few things any corrections employee can do to help make the process go more smoothly. Some of those steps include:

  1. Know your facility’s policy. It’s one thing to have a policy and another thing to know what it requires.
  2. Know who your PREA coordinator is. Knowing what you now do about PREA audits, you should feel comfortable talking to your facility’s point person if you know in advance of issues or behaviors that should be corrected.
  3. Know what training you’ve received, and when. If you’re singled out for questions by the auditor, you’ll want to be able to answer these questions with confidence.
  4. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. This applies to any questions you might have for your PREA coordinator, your supervisor(s) and the on-site auditors.

It takes work for a corrections facility to be fully PREA compliant. It also takes a concerted effort to work diligently to prevent, detect and respond to sexual abuse in confinement. However, corrections facilities and the people who staff them have a moral and statutory obligation to ensure the PREA Standards are understood and followed.

So, ask yourself again: Are you ready for your next PREA audit?

This article, which was originally published in November 2018, has been substantially revised and updated and was republished in April 2024.

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