The Marshall Project
In 2003, Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act, now usually known as PREA. It was intended to make experiences like his far less likely. But like many ambitious pieces of legislation, its promise has proved difficult to realize. The law required studies of the problem that took far longer than initially intended, and adoption of the guidelines they produced has been painfully slow, resting on the competence and dedication of particular employees. PREA has not been a complete failure, but it is also far from delivering on its promise.
When prisoner advocates talk about PREA’s passage over a decade ago, they use use words like “miracle” and “victory.” But those same advocates acknowledge that this rare moment of bipartisanship was born out of tragedy. In 1996, a 17 year-old prisoner named Rodney Hulin Jr. had torn up his bed sheet, tied it above the door of his cell in the Clemens Unit in Brazoria County, Texas, and jumped down from the top bunk of his bed. When correctional officers cut him down, Hulin was comatose, and he died four months later.
Hulin had been raped, beaten, and forced to perform oral sex within three days of his arrival at the unit. He asked to be placed in protective custody and was turned down. After his suicide, a picture of his small shoulders and thin face circulated on major news networks and Hulin became a symbol of two related phenomena. One was the prevalence of new laws that allowed youth to be sent to adult prisons, rather than juvenile facilities, for non-violent crimes (Hulin had committed second-degree arson, resulting in less than $500 of property damage). The other was prison rape.
Among prisoners and their keepers, Hulin’s experience was hardly notable. It was widely known that younger, smaller inmates were at constant risk of sexual assault. Haywood Patterson, one ofTHE SCOTTSBORO BOYS1, wrote that when he got to Alabama’s Atmore Prison in 1937, he found that young men were beaten into submission and eventually “sold themselves around on the weekends just like whore women of the streets.” In 1980, Louisiana prison-newspaper editor Wilbert Rideau won national journalism accolades for an essay called “The Sexual Jungle,” in which he wrote that “rape in prison is rarely a sexual act, but one of violence, politics, and an acting out of power roles.” Being raped, or “turned out,” he explained, redefines the male victim “as a ‘female’ in this perverse subculture, and he must assume that role as the ‘property’ of his conqueror or whoever claimed him and arranged his emasculation. He becomes a slave in the fullest sense of the term.”
Reports about prison rape by advocacy groups led to occasional efforts by federal lawmakers to address the problem. None of those initiatives gained any wide support until 2001, when Human Rights Watch released “No Escape: Male Rape in U.S. Prisons,” which focused less on perpetrators than on failures by correctional staff and policies to prevent rape. The report included harrowing first-person accounts. “The opposite of compassion is not hatred,” wrote one Florida prisoner, describing the violence he’d endured. “It’s indifference.” The revelations brought together liberal human rights activists, government-distrustful libertarians, and Christian conservatives. PREA was passed unanimously.
The lawmakers and advocates who pushed the law to passage hoped it would create standards to protect particular classes of prisoners. Recent news reports on PREA have focused almost exclusively on the plight of transgender and gay inmates, but originally the spotlight was on a much larger population: the young and inexperienced. “There was an assumption from the beginning of PREA that we wanted to protect the vulnerable,” says Cindy Struckman-Johnson, a University of South Dakota psychologist. “Age was a given. It’s the number one vulnerability.”
Today, states only have to promise that they’re working to comply with PREA’s many requirements, including the separation of youth under 18 from older prisoners. If they fail to do so or simply refuse to certify their compliance, as the governors of seven states have done, they stand to lose 5 percent of their grant funding from the DOJ. While most states, including Michigan, are still assuring federal authorities that they are addressing prison rape, prisoners remain at risk. “You see a lot of states just making assurances,” said Carmen Daugherty, policy director of the Campaign for Youth Justice, “and it seems like they can do it indefinitely, year after year after year.”
Picture: Andrew Bardwell from Cleveland, Ohio, USA (Jail Cell) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons