Helping Incarcerated Survivors of Sexual Assault
Approximately 2 years ago PREA Coordinator (Monica Lugo) at the Bexar County Jail approached The Rape Crisis Center (RCC) in San Antonio to help implement the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) standards. We had no idea what PREA standards were or how we could help put these principles into action. Finding answers to these questions persuaded us to support this severely underserved population.
PREA standards are federal regulations designed to prevent sexual abuse behind bars and provide an avenue for survivors to report their abuse and receive timely help. These measures require protection for vulnerable inmates, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, as well as youth who can no longer be placed in the same housing units as adults. They require stronger procedures for detecting and preventing sexual assault by staff, which statistics show account for half of the sexual assaults. The standards also remove time limits placed on traumatized survivors seeking counseling. PREA specifications require facilities to undergo and publicize independent audits every three years. The Justice Department passed PREA in 2003, but the final standards did not become effective until June 20, 2012, almost one decade later. The Department of Homeland Security finalized their standards effective May 6, 2014.
The number of sexual assaults committed against incarcerated individuals is staggering. One in ten former state inmates reports being sexually assaulted while in detention. One third of inmates reported sexual harassment at the hands of staff during showers, searches, or while simply undressing according to a Bureau of Justice statistics report released in May of 2008 titled, “Sexual Victimization Reported by Former State Prisoners.” The study reveals that staff retaliated against a shocking 46.3 percent of prisoners who reported abuse by a staff member. According to the study, female staff are the main perpetrators of this crime with 79 percent of males reporting abuse by women. After reading these statistics, we realized the great need facing the RCC to collaborate and help survivors of sexual abuse behind bars. Thus began the process of learning PREA standards and implementing a confidential hotline to incarcerated survivors.
What we believed to be the first and most important step began with a tour of the jail. It was enlightening to see where survivors would use the phone to make crisis calls. Establishing privacy presented a big problem. Knowing this helped us come up with procedures in the form of a PREA handbook for our hotline staff. Just Detention International (JDI), an influential human rights organization, helped guide us and answered our concerns. While waiting for the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to go through its many channels, Monica Lugo trained the RCC staff on facility procedures and PREA standards. This guidance helped us understand the jail culture and how PREA standards will help change that culture.
As part of the MOU, all of our hotline staff underwent a background check for Bexar County. We officially started answering the confidential hotline in April of 2014. We receive many off-topic calls that take only a few minutes to resolve or redirect along with the calls asserting past or present incidents of sexual abuse. The jail has a reporting system in place that complements the RCC staff ’s skill in answering survivor’s needs and maintaining a confidential connection to the jail. Our PREA handbook also contains information on coping skills for incarcerated survivors that was provided by one of the RCC counselors who sees survivors at the Bexar County Juvenile Detention Center in San Antonio. This information along with an advocate guidebook from JDI has been instrumental for our staff.
Since starting this process over 2 years ago many other facilities have approached the RCC requesting a confidential hotline. We now provide this service for the Bexar County Jail, two detention centers, two juvenile facilities, two residential facilities, one processing center, and are currently working on MOUs with two more juvenile facilities. Currently, four facilities run by for-profit agencies have agreed to compensate the agency for this added hotline. Learning the procedures and reporting options for the different types of facilities has been challenging but definitely a fulfilling experience for all of us.
This work has taken Bexar County representatives and RCC to Pittsburg, Laredo, and later this year to Los Angeles where we share our learning adventures and discuss the benefit of collaborative involvement. In addition to being a highly rewarding experience, this journey opened our eyes to an underreported and very rarely talked about crime occurring behind bars. We contend that rape is a human right’s violation even for those serving time or being detained. The RCC vows to support victims of sexual violence no matter where they may currently reside.
TAASA supports communication with correctional facilities and encourages local programs to offer support and assistance (as appropriate) to make said institutions safe from sexual violence and predation.