OP-ED: Protect Kids From Rape in Adult Jails and Prisons, Don’t Delay PREA

Liz Ryan, Founder and of Campaign for Youth Justice.
Liz Ryan, Founder and of Campaign for Youth Justice.

In an attempt to put a positive spin on their efforts to implement the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), federal Department of Justice officials held a news conference May 28 in which they indicated that a majority of states intended to comply with the law.

Deputy Attorney General David Cole and Mary Lou Leary, principal deputy assistant attorney general for the Office of Justice Programs, specifically named seven states — Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Nebraska, Texas and Utah — that do not intend to comply with PREA.

The Justice Department’s glowing report does not seem to square with a May 14 letter from the National Governors Association (NGA) asking Attorney General Eric Holder to delay the implementation time frame for PREA.

My experience with the NGA during my tenure in Delaware Gov. Tom Carper’s office is that a letter doesn’t go out from the NGA unless there is strong consensus among the governors on the issue. Given that, Holder should, at a minimum, make all the individual governors’ letters available to the public so we can know for sure where individual states stand and if a majority really do intend to comply.

More importantly, Holder should not delay the law’s implementation or let any governor off the hook for not complying with PREA for the following reasons.

First, the states have had years of standards, regulations and guidance to assist with compliance already.

The law passed more than a decade ago. The PREA law was unanimously approved by Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2003. The passage of this law was led by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, many of whom are still in Congress.

Standards and regulations have been issued over the past five years. National standards were issued in 2009 by the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission (NPREC), as required by Congress. Draft regulations were issued in 2011. And final regulations were issued two years ago in May 2012.

Guidance has been readily available to the states. The U.S. Department of Justice set up the PREA Resource Center, which has provided a website resource, numerous webinars and trainings all over the country. The NGA itself co-hosted a webinar with the PREA Resource Center in March 2014 for governors offices on PREA compliance.

How much more time and guidance do the governors really need on this?

Second, states and localities have received millions of dollars for PREA implementation.

Since 2003, the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) has issued more than $50 million in federal grants to state and local jurisdictions in more than half the states for PREA implementation.

The governors want a delay even though they’ve received millions in federal funds to implement PREA already?

It is even more appalling that nearly all of the states that Justice Department officials say won’t comply have received millions in federal grants for PREA compliance: Arizona ($300,000), Florida ($1.26 million), Idaho ($1.4 million), Indiana ($1.9 million), Nebraska ($644,000) and Texas ($3.5 million).

Shouldn’t there be some accountability for these funds from the Justice Department?

Third: 100,000 kids.

That’s how many kids cycle through adult jails and prisons every year.

Under the PREA regulations, the Department of Justice states that: “As a matter of policy, the Department supports strong limitations on the confinement of adults with juveniles.” The regulations include the Youthful Inmate Standard, which bans the housing of young people in the general adult population, prohibits contact between youth and adults in common areas, and ensures youth are constantly supervised by staff. At the same time, the regulations require limitations on the use of isolation in complying with the standard.

This standard is consistent with the recent report issued by the U.S. Attorney General’s Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence, co-chaired by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) Administrator Bob Listenbee. The report concludes that, “We should stop treating juvenile offenders as if they were adults, prosecuting them in adult courts, incarcerating them as adults, and sentencing them to harsh punishments that ignore their capacity to grow.”

Best practices and the PREA Resource Center’s guidance recommends that youth be removed from adult jails and prisons and be placed in juvenile detention and correctional facilities where they are more likely to receive developmentally appropriate services, educational programming and support by trained staff.

By allowing for a delay in implementing PREA or letting states off the hook, kids will continue to be exposed to the dangers of adult jails and prisons.

Holder should not cave to the NGA’s request to delay PREA implementation. Further, he must take a more visible and aggressive stance in engaging the governors who intend to flout the law.

Holder’s actions could ensure the safety of thousands of children who are now exposed to sexual violence in adult jails and prisons.

Liz Ryan is a campaign strategist, youth justice policy expert, and civil and human rights advocate. Follow Liz on Twitter @LizRyanYJ.