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Taking Stock of Prison Rape in the Trump Era

In 2003, Congress—led by current attorney general Jeff Sessions—passed a law to eliminate sexual assault in America's jails and prisons. Is it working?

Julie Morse

(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

One stormy July morning in 2013, 17-year-old R.W.* awoke to use the bathroom and found himself stuck in the throes of an American nightmare. Then an inmate at the Sumter Correctional Institution in Bushnell, Florida, R.W. claims he was attacked by at least six of his fellow prisoners who choked him, cut him with pieces of barbed wire, and raped him with a mop handle. It was part of a ritual known as a "test of heart," a violent tradition some inmates say is common in Florida correctional facilities. 

Making things even worse is that an investigation by the Florida Department of Corrections suggests a guard was stationed in view of the attack but did nothing—and never reported it.

According to the lawsuit filed on R.W.'s behalf by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), it was only after a second guard noticed the teenager's wounds—he claims to have been treated only with toothpaste—that R.W. was sent to the infirmary. He says he was then moved to administrative confinement, an isolated room where he was only allowed to leave three times a week to shower and to speak with the prison investigator. The inmate further claims he was subsequently prohibited from attending GED classes or communicating with fellow inmates, and that he never received his personal belongings or mail.

Just a few months after the brutal attack, R.W. was relocated to Lancaster Correctional Institution in Trenton, Florida, where, according to his attorney, he endured another assault. 

Though perhaps less common than sensational HBO series like Oz might have you believe, rape behind bars isn't exactly rare in the United States. Roughly one in ten youth had been sexually assaulted during their time in juvenile detention, a 2012 federal study found—to say nothing of the adult prison system. And though R.W. was apparently the victim of fellow inmates, official prison staff commit some 45 percent of sexual assaults on young inmates that get reported. Between 2007 and 2012, juveniles filed nearly 9,500 reports of sexual abuse across America.  

Especially during his second term, former president Barack Obama made strides on criminal justice reform, commuting more sentences than any other chief executive in history and ending juvenile solitary confinement at the federal level. But he devoted considerably less attention to the problem of sexual assault in jails and prisons. That made a certain amount of sense given reform was already underway: In 2003, then president George W. Bush signed the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which instituted new national standards for tabulating and combatting sexual assault in the criminal justice system. 

Advocates hope to take things further in the Trump era thanks to the Justice For All Reauthorization Act, which became law in December. The act compels states to more aggressively implement Prison Rape Elimination Act standards by 2022, or else risk losing federal grant money. Previously, states not in compliance with the law were subject to a 5 percent penalty on some prison funds but could avoid being docked if they promised to implement standards in the future.

Although President Trump aggressively positions himself as tough on crime, and criticized his predecessor's clemency policy, he seldom discusses his vision for American prisons. But his new attorney general, former Alabama US senator Jeff Sessions, was a lead sponsor of the original Prison Rape Elimination Act, and while there are many issues—like holding local police departments accountable—where the AG diverges from the Obama administration, combatting sexual assault behind bars doesn't appear to be one of them.

"The nomination of Senator Sessions gives us reason to expect that preventing sexual abuse in detention will remain a DOJ priority," says Chris Daley, deputy executive director of Just Detention International, an advocacy group focused on jailhouse and prison rape.

To be sure, the problem of sexual assault in the system wasn't exactly ignored in the Obama era. But just as the former president's signature healthcare law was implemented unevenly across the 50 states, so have the now well over a decade-old rules to rein in prison rape.

"Some states and facilities have done a really good job of reporting standards, and some haven't done a good job, and some haven't done it at all," says Jason Szanyi, deputy director of the Center for Children's Law and Policy, a public-interest prison-advocacy group. Many states are lax about adhering to the law: As of March, only 11 were in full compliance with the law, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Thirty-seven states sent letters of assurance to Department of Justice that they would complete audits and staff training in the upcoming years. Arkansas and Utah, meanwhile, are the only two states that have opted out completely.  

Referring to R.W.'s case, Ashley Cook, the press secretary for the Florida Department of Corrections, insisted the state is striving to maintain PREA standards. In an email to VICE, she maintained that sexual assault victims are examined by mental or medical health professionals "in a timely manner."

If nothing else, the contrast between the status quo and the era before PREA's passage is tangible. Nicole Wolfe's story offers a telling example of the old way: In 1997, while serving time in Central California Women's Facility (CCWF), Wolfe, a former attorney, says she was routinely raped by a nurse and a correctional lieutenant. When she reported the abuse, Wolfe adds, she was placed in administrative segregation (an isolated room) for 30 hours. "I cried the whole time," she told me. "It was like jail inside of a prison." 

"With PREA comes heightened sensitivity, awareness, and increased capacity to report," said Dr. Allen J. Beck, senior statistical advisor at the Bureau of Justice Statistics and a chief architect of the PREA reports. "I think victims are more likely to report now than they were in the past." 

Some figures bear this out: In 2016, the Bureau of Justice Statistics surveyed more than 92,000 adult inmates and 1,738 16- and 17-year-olds housed in prisons and local jails and discovered that despite a long-term drop in the population at juvenile detention centers, rape allegations rose steadily, from 690 in 2010 to 735 in 2011 to 865 in 2012. In adult facilities, allegations of sexual victimization jumped 11 percent between 2009 and 2011, from 7,855 allegations to 8,763. There has been anecdotal evidence of a similar trend at work among the general population in the United States, with a significant uptick in rapes reported in some cities; former New York City police commissioner Bill Bratton called this phenomenon the "Bill Cosby" effect," suggesting the slow but steady emergence of new sex assault allegations against the disgraced comedian may be encouraging longtime survivors to come forward from the population at large.

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Wolfe caught a break and eventually was transferred to what she described as the "completely wonderful" atmosphere of the California Institution for Women (CIW), where, she said, "people never once gave me the sideways glance." At CIW, Wolfe helped set up a peer educators program to teach inmates how to safely report sexual assault.

Today, CCWF officials seem to be doing what they can to meet PREA standards. The prison hosts a PREA education program that includes peer support and grief counselors for inmates, according to Michael Dunn, the facility's public information officer.

But no single piece of legislation could possibly lift the overwhelming grip of violence on America's prisons. Transgender inmates, in particular, face unique danger, and advocates aggressively caution against declaring "mission accomplished."

"Prison rape is actually a real tool of institutional control, a money-making opportunity for [prison gangs] that are in control," says Lisa Graybill, deputy legal director of criminal justice reform at the SPLC, suggesting that the economic system in prisons is built on the exchange of goods, money, and sexual assault. Within many juvenile offender prisons in Florida, for instance, gangs force inmates to pay for their tenancy through rape, according to Graybill. "The guards ignore it because they rely on groups of inmates to maintain control of the facilities," she says. 

To advocates like her, this system of control is one of the key factors preventing the Prison Rape Elimination Act from being more effective—and perpetuating a cycle of sexual violence in some of America's most forlorn places.

*Not his real name

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