You probably read the headline to this article and thought to yourself, “Of course I’m ready for our Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) audit. I have clear boundaries with inmates, I know we have a policy regarding PREA at our agency, and I am not the PREA coordinator, so I don’t have to worry about it too much.”
That is an admirable starting point; however, there is a bit more to it. Whether it’s your facility’s first audit or a process you’ve been through before, everyone has a role in preparing for a PREA audit. PREA standards are quite inclusive, so everyone at your facility—from volunteers to top administrators—should be trained on and continually practice compliance with them.
Many people often think of “prison rape” in a stereotypical way—an inmate sexually abusing another inmate. While that is often true, prison rape can also involve staff, volunteers and contractors working in our facilities. You might be tempted to think this an extremely rare occurrence—why would someone risk their career for a relationship with an inmate? I had my doubts, too—until my eyes were suddenly forced wide open. Within the first few months of taking the helm of an agency with a jail, I uncovered a dangerous and disappointing culture involving several corrections officers in my facility.
By the time it was over, three corrections officers were terminated. Two of the three were booked into the very jail in which they worked, for having inappropriate relationships with inmates. I spent the rest of my career acutely aware that prison rape between inmates and officers does in fact occur. We worked diligently to eliminate it through education, procedures and removing opportunities for sexual abuse within the facility.
Intent of the PREA Standards
After my experience at that facility, which I oversaw for 12 years, I welcomed the PREA standards—so much that I became a certified PREA auditor to help other facilities better prepare to abide by the law.
For adult facilities, PREA includes 43 standards. Together, the standards have three clear goals regarding sexual safety for those in confinement: to prevent, detect and respond to sexual abuse.
The PREA standards address prevention in several major ways. Screening who we hire, who we allow to volunteer, and who has access to our facilities is paramount. The PREA standards provide guidance on looking into the background of individuals we employ, both paid staff and volunteers. They also set forth the minimum education everyone entering the facility should receive regarding the prevention of sexual abuse and provide guidance for checking the backgrounds of those going through the promotion process.
The purpose of a PREA audit is not to say, “Gotcha!”, or to catch anyone doing something wrong.
Screening of inmates is equally important. A comprehensive intake screening that assesses the risk of victimization or abusiveness is a key component in prevention. This screening information helps us with decisions regarding housing and classification.
Prevention is also achieved by understanding the physical layout of your facility. You work in it every day and know the layout well. You should do your part to identify areas in your facility that could be considered “blind spots.” It’s important these areas can be checked, watched or even eliminated in the facility. During the PREA audit, the auditor will do a thorough tour of the facility, looking for these hidden places and how they are addressed through facility upgrades and monitoring technology.
Specific examples of preventive steps the auditor will be looking for include:
- How inmates are briefed about sexual abuse and reporting
- How the facility limits cross-gender viewing and searches
- How staff announces that someone of the opposite gender is entering the housing unit
At least six weeks before the auditor arrives, you will see a notice posted in all housing areas of the facility. The notice provides the date of the audit and a way for inmates to contact the auditor about any concerns they have regarding their sexual safety in the facility.
The auditor will also be checking and testing systems for inmate reporting of sexual abuse. For example, inmates should have telephone access to an outside confidential support service for reporting allegations. The facility must also have a policy in place that allows a third party to submit a complaint on behalf of an alleged victim.
But it’s not just about having systems in place. Every jail employee has a duty to watch for warning signs of sexual abuse among inmates, staff and others. Taking allegations seriously, and ensuring referrals of any these allegations for investigation, is the crux of detection.
By its very name, PREA is intended to eliminate rape in jails and prisons through a zero-tolerance policy. We are not yet there, making it necessary that PREA standards address what happens when prevention fails but detection is successful. How we respond to these incidents is often indicative of our level of professionalism and commitment to ensuring the safety of staff and inmates.
Auditors will review how a facility that has an allegation of sexual assault responds in a coordinated fashion. The standards help define first responder duties. They set forth protocols for collecting evidence, performing forensic medical examinations and conducting investigations. The standards provide guidance on incident reviews and how staff must protect a victim from their abuser. Finally, the response includes data collection on any incidents and how records are maintained.
PREA audits involve two main stages: policy review and the site visit. The policy review takes place prior to the site visit. The auditor reviews each PREA standard and ensures the facility has a policy that addresses, and is compliant, with each standard.
During the site visit, the auditor takes a full tour of the facility and the grounds and works to gain an understanding of inmate movement and daily life. This is likely where you come in. The auditor chooses random inmates, staff and volunteers to interview. The auditor wants to know whether there is a compliant policy in place, but also wants to see whether the policy is being followed and practiced regularly.
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 the daily facility operations. This could include addressing how cross-gender searches and viewing are handled, how you respond to incidents, the announcements (or lack of announcement) of cross-gender staff in a housing unit, the screening of inmates, and other preventive measures.
Even if you and your facility are just getting started on PREA implementation, if your facility uses Lexipol policies, you have a head start because Lexipol policies address 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 be sure you’re referencing the appropriate standards—PREA standards distinguish between Adult Jails and Prisons, Lockups and Juvenile Facilities. They are facility-type specific and there are important nuances to each. The standards and FAQs can be found at www.prearesourcecenter.org.
The 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. We have experience in facilities and we rarely expect facilities to be fully compliant on the first go-round. By the end of the facility visit we almost always identify something for improvement. The auditor will prepare an interim report and provide corrective action items to be achieved during a corrective action 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.
It takes work to be fully PREA compliant and to diligently eliminate sexual abuse in confinement. However, I can’t subscribe to any ideology that rape and sexual abuse in our facilities is something we ignore, nor should you.
So, ask yourself again: Are you ready for your next PREA audit?