When three prison officials at the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn were charged in May with sexually assaulting at least six women in their custody, it did not come as a surprise. The federal prison has been plagued by scandal in recent years, including two high–profile cases of staff sexual misconduct.
What may be surprising, however, is that MDC has long had policies in place to end this violence. In 2012, the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) formally rolled out a plan to ensure that its facilities adopted the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) standards.
Overall, the PREA standards are a strong response to the nationwide crisis of prisoner rape. They mandate that detention facilities train staff on prevention, educate prisoners about their rights and provide prisoners with multiple channels for reporting abuse. Under the standards, facilities must screen new arrivals for known risk factors, such as prior victimization, and offer prisoners access to community rape crisis services. They are, in short, a powerful human rights tool.
But enforcing them is another story. We trust corrections officials to apply PREA standards to keep prisons safe. But every year, 200,000 adults and children are sexually abused behind bars, and contrary to popular perceptions about prisoners, at least half of all abuse is committed by staff — the very people charged with stopping this violence. Auditors are supposed to see that prison staff are enforcing PREA guidelines — but the auditors, too, are failing. And prisoners are paying the price.
While testifying at an earlier sexual abuse trial, the person responsible for overseeing the standards at MDC did not appear to know that an officer could not legally engage in consensual sex with an inmate — that consent is not possible when one party literally holds the key to the other one’s freedom. Perhaps most shocking of all, the very team in charge of teaching their colleagues about the PREA standards included two of the men, both lieutenants, currently on trial for raping prisoners.
It hardly seems necessary to point out that when prison officials tasked with rape prevention are unqualified — or when they themselves are raping inmates — it leads to wider staff dysfunction. A 2015 investigation by the Justice Department’s Inspector General Office found that MDC officers were confused about rules on how to ensure that prisoners’ reports of abuse were handled confidentially, a prerequisite for any safe facility and a cornerstone of PREA. Little wonder that victims did not feel safe coming forward.
Yet bad leadership and flawed PREA implementation tell only part of the story of what went wrong at MDC. The PREA standards stipulate that prisons and jails have to be audited every three years on compliance with the rules. These audits have a crucial oversight role. They highlight strengths and expose weaknesses at a facility, so that officials can make changes as needed, and they provide advocates, the press and the public at large a rare glimpse inside prison walls. That is, if they are done properly.
MDC has had two PREA audits — and, disturbingly, it passed both. This is an unfathomable result. MDC’s problems were right at the surface, plain for anyone to see. They were certainly apparent to the inspector general’s investigators, who visited the facility just months before its first audit. MDC’s second clean audit was carried out in early June. The auditor’s report found that MDC meets every PREA requirement, and that the Bureau of Prison’s “zero tolerance against sexual abuse is clearly established.” It makes no mention of the rape charges against three staff members — though, the sexual abuse training program that two of them ran was determined to be PREA compliant.
The PREA audit tool is reasonably robust, spelling out what a facility must do to comply with the PREA standards. The problem is with the auditors themselves. A handful dominate the market, offering cheap audits and quick assessments of facilities. This results in auditors who do little advance research, relying only on documents provided by the agency. Auditors are supposed to contact local advocates, who often have knowledge on conditions inside facilities. Based on their final reports, both MDC auditors appear to have done no outreach whatsoever — but even a minimal amount of effort to talk with people on the ground would have yielded information about the abuses occurring within its walls.
Indeed, based on audit reports alone, you might think that Texas is a model state for sexual abuse prevention. Of the more than 100 Texas facilities that have been audited, only two fell short of full PREA compliance. Yet Texas’s prisons consistently rank as having the highest rates of sexual abuse in the country. My organization, Just Detention International, receives hundreds of letters every year from inmates in Texas who have been sexually assaulted in state-run facilities. One prisoner, writing from the supposedly PREA-compliant Ellis Unit, told us, “When I tell my family about getting raped in prison, it’s hard for them to grasp. They can’t believe that guards turn their backs on prisoners. They think it’s safe here, but it isn’t.”
The flawed auditing process should not overshadow the fact that the PREA standards are working in agencies whose leaders take them seriously and commit to them. But PREA’s effectiveness will be limited unless an adequate monitoring system is developed. The Justice Department has a plan to beef up the auditing process, but it needs to be funded and implemented courageously. Fortunately, the House Appropriations Committee and Justice Department have requested PREA funding that could cover the new audit plan, as well as vital local and state programs to address prisoner rape. If Congress meets the request, the prospects for ending sexual abuse in detention, once and for all, will grow much brighter.