The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) was enacted in 2003 to combat the often unspoken allegations and acts of sexual assault on inmates while incarcerated. The act signed into law by President George W. Bush called for tracking of specific sexual assault statistics by the DOJ Bureau of Justice Statistics.  This tracking provides for greater identification and subsequent accountability of national patterns and trends while making make prison administrators more accountable.

PREA also called for the creation of a committee to spearhead reviews and studies into the goal of eliminating rape and sexual assaults in prisons. The National Prison Rape Elimination Committee (NPREC) was founded in 2004. After several years of continuing research they published new provisions of the PREA act this May, which is a culmination of input from organizations across all spectrums of prisoners’ rights.

Since the inception of PREA DOJ has put several prison administrators on the hot seat to explain systemic sexual abuse in their facilities. The latest target that may be in the sights of the DOJ is the Alabama Department of Corrections. A prisoner’s rights group named Equal Justice filed a complaint this May with DOJ alleging systemic sexual abuse by staff in the state of Alabama’s Julia Tutwiler Prison.

This complaint was lodged after several allegations were brought to the attention of the Equal Rights group through inmate interviews. Alabama prisons commissioner Kim Thomas indicated the DOJ has not yet contacted the state about these allegations and supports that the agency already vigorously pursues sexual allegations of any nature. Since 2003, six employees have been convicted or sexually related charges ranging from harassment to sodomy.

This latest issue highlights allegations of staff on inmate abuse while PREA is directed at any inmate sexual abuse, which is presumed to be greater among inmate on inmate abuse. Depending upon which source is referenced, estimates of prisoner sexual assaults can range from 3% to those incarcerated to 14% or more.

Most jail administrators I work with routinely aim for PREA’s zero tolerance goal. This goal is often challenged because prisons and jails house persons considered so dangerous that their free range in society presents a real threat to public safety. Many of the incarcerated populations suffer from some form of mental health or behavioral issue and are on maintenance drugs, which further challenges rational, thinking.

Furthermore, many prisons are not designed or staffed to provide the optimum supervision at all times especially in states like Alabama that don’t have unions who argue and receive increased staffing. Finally many inmates are reluctant to speak of prison sexual assault and on many occasions it is consensual between inmates making it difficult for administrators to adequately gauge the level of abuse in their respective facilities. It should also be noted that sexual activity between staff and inmates can never be consensual and is illegal to engage in.

These challenges often work against prison administrators in their quest to adhere to provisions of PREA. With that said, DOJ has taken great steps with the implementation of PREA provisions and has increased nationwide awareness of inmate sexual assault.

Prior to this cries many times fell on deaf ears and it was an aspect of prisons that rarely got a spotlight PREA provisions are a critical step in trying to identify baseline data into this unspoken phenomenon and more consistent and accurate tracking and data can only help serve to increase inmate safety in this regard.

Can it ever be totally eliminated? I hypothesize no, based upon the fact that jails and prisons are volatile places that house many predators and the modern day correctional staff I have personally witnessed go above and beyond duty to provide excellent care, custody and control. As in any profession or any inmate population a few bad apples unfortunately tarnish the reputation of the many that serve dutifully.                            .

Pete Curcio is corrections consultant who trains senior corrections personnel and executives throughout the United States. He is a graduate of John Jay College of Criminal Justice – CUNY. Pete is a former Regional Director from the New York City Department of Correction and Executive Fellow at the DOJ/FBI. He presently provides subject matter expertise for Federal Prison Consultants, Inc. and serves as Law Enforcement today’s correctional expert.

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