#MeToo Behind Bars: Do the Feds Ignore Prison Sexual Assaults?

Under the Prison Rape Elimination Act, federal investigators must conduct audits of prison facilities to monitor compliance with standards aimed at eliminating sexual abuse. But an investigation by WitnessLA suggests the audits leave a lot to be desired.

In May, the Department of Justice launched a federal civil rights investigation into sexual misconduct by officers at New Jersey’s Edna Mahan Correctional Facility. It was the fourth such formal inquiry since 2016.

Since 2015, at least 11 lawsuits, including two class-action suits, have been filed against seven former Edna Mahan employees alleging they engaged in criminal sexual abuse of inmates.

Yet two separate audits by federal investigators during the years that inmates allege they were being sexually assaulted and abused found the facility to be in compliance with standards established under the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). .

Their conclusions seemed to contradict a troubling pattern of allegations of misbehavior at the New Jersey facility.

In a civil lawsuit filed December 20, 2017, an inmate named Janean Owens alleged that since her arrival in 2009, she was sexually harassed and assaulted by multiple prison employees, six of whom she named in the complaint.

According to Owens, she was forced to give and receive oral sex, groped, and constantly stared at.

“I’m gonna tear you up,” one former corrections officer reportedly told her.

“I want to hit that,” another said repeatedly, according to the complaint.

When Owens complained to prison administrators, the officers retaliated. She was once kept in a television room for 12 hours without access to a bathroom, where she finally resorted to urinating on the floor, she said.

Officers glared at her menacingly, the complaint stated, and put her “in reasonable apprehension and fear of further assault and battery.”

The problem of sexual assault in jail has never been taken as seriously as the problem of sexual assault outside.

Everyone from superstar comedy duo Key and Peele to former FBI director James Comey have publicly enjoyed “prison rape” jokes in the last few years.

That was supposed to change 15 years ago with the passage of PREA by Congress in 2003, which led to the creation of a set of standards designed to “prevent, detect, and respond to sexual abuse in confinement facilities.”

As an incentive for states to comply with PREA, failure to do so can result in losing out on millions of dollars in federal grants, as happened in Utah. To ensure that those standards are being met, each detention facility covered under PREA must undergo a several days-long inspection by a certified PREA auditor every three years. Based on their initial findings auditors create a preliminary report, which includes a corrective action plan when necessary.

After 180 days, during which the facility is meant to make the prescribed changes, auditors return to do a final audit.

These final reports, unlike the preliminary audits and corrective action plans, are public record.

The ‘Rubber Stamp’ Factor

 In July, 2014 the Department of Justice sent auditor Ed Motley to determine how fully the Edna Mahan facility was in compliance with PREA standards. Two years later, in October, 2016, auditor William Willingham visited a second time.

Both auditors reported Edna Mahan was in full compliance. In one category–training staff in PREA awareness–Willingham reported that the facility exceeded what was required.

Willingham noted the presence of 90 cameras in the facility and wrote that there were no “blind spots” that the cameras failed to cover.

The claim of no blind spots was particularly perplexing since prison staff would later testify in the spring 2018 criminal trial of another Edna Mahan colleague that some units, such as the facility’s minimum security housing unit in which some reported assaults took place, had no cameras at all.

Willingham’ described “the facility staff” as “extremely courteous, cooperative and professional. Staff morale appeared to be good and the observed staff/inmate relationships were seen as appropriate…” he wrote.

At the conclusion of the audit, Willingham thanked the administrator and staff “for their hard work and dedication to the PREA audit process.”

These passages and others appear nearly verbatim in at least 12 other audits of facilities Willingham conducted between 2015 and 2018.

Lovisa Stannow

Lovisa Stannow, executive director, Just Detention International. Photo courtesy WitnessLA

Lovisa Stannow, executive director of Just Detention International, cites Willingham’s Edna Mahan report as an example of what she calls a “rubber stamp” PREA audit—a term she uses, she said, “in the classical sense that the auditor is using the same language in multiple reports about completely different facilities.”

Willingham’s Edna Mahan audit report is not the only one.

Stannow pointed to similarly incongruous reports at East Mississippi Correctional Facility, Mississippi’s Walnut Grove Correctional Facility, and Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center.

According to Stannow, Just Detention International has reviewed hundreds of audit reports that are “just blatantly sub-standard,” she said.

“We see audit reports,” she said, “where it seems like the auditors have not done even the most basic homework, where they have relied entirely on what corrections officials at the facilities they’re auditing are telling them.”

In 2017, the Justice Department provided a set of guidelines in their PREA Auditor Handbook, which laid down some rules meant to guard against these rubber stamp audits.

But the DOJ failed to institute any kind of enforcement mechanism to ensure that the new rules were followed.

 Congress Steps In

Late this fall, Congress passed a second round of fixes in the form of The United States Parole Commission Extension Act (HR 6896), which was signed into law by President Trump on October 31. HR 6896 amends the original 2003 PREA language to put some teeth into the system overseeing auditors, while also increasing the transparency of that oversight.

Stannow, whose organization aims to end sexual abuse in detention and who championed the new bill, said the new legislation is a good foundation for fixing the problem, but to fix it completely will require a culture change in correctional leadership.

A sensible corrections official that wants to make sure that he or she runs the best possible prison would obviously choose to get a thorough audit. And yet what we see is facilities, over and over again, hiring the sloppiest and most superficial of the auditors.”

American University law professor Brenda Smith agreed. “I think the audit function had problems from its inception,” said Smith, who was appointed to the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission when it was created in 2003.

Among these problems, said Smith, is the fact that facilities are allowed to choose their own auditor from a pool of certified auditors.

“The reality is that most of the auditors are acting as independent contractors, and for any number of them, this may be their livelihood,” Smith said, which creates a financial incentive for auditors to write up positive reports in hopes of getting chosen by facilities as often as possible.

HR 6896 is designed to address this and other conflicts of interest, stipulating that the DOJ-run PREA Management Office will create its own system for assigning certified auditors to federal, state, and local facilities.

brenda smith

Brenda Smith, American University Washington College of Law. Photo courtesy WitnessLA

A DOJ spokesperson told WitnessLA that the PREA Management Office is working on creating this new system, but she offered no details about how the system will work and no estimate as to when it will be up and running.

Another key provision in the bill intends to hold auditors accountable for the quality of their audits, stating that if an evaluation by the PREA Management Office finds an auditor’s work to be subpar or compromised, the auditor may be decertified.

The decertification must also be done in a transparent manner, according to the new law, meaning the auditor’s name and reason for decertification must be published and shared with any facilities that received an audit from that person within three years. The DOJ declined to comment on whether information about previously decertified auditors would be made public retroactively after HR 6896 became law.

“I would say that there has been a reluctance of the Department of Justice to decertify auditors, and that’s been a real problem,” Stannow said.

She added that it was previously not possible to find out whether former auditors were decertified “for cause” or whether they simply chose not to keep their certification up to date–an important distinction for jail and prison leadership in deciding whether a report by a no-longer certified auditor was compromised.

One issue that the new law does not address, according to PREA advocates, is the fact that the auditor pool is loaded with corrections officials. The PREA Resource Center and the PREA Management Office, two of the groups responsible for certifying auditors, said that they do not track the number of auditors who have corrections backgrounds.

But based on the review of hundreds of PREA audit reports, Stannow’s Just Detention International has determined the vast majority of active PREA auditors are current or former corrections officials.

This has one upside: someone with a background in corrections should have the knowledge to produce informed and credible evaluations of a facility. The downside is another potential conflict of interest, which could mean that a corrections official would be reluctant to give a negative report about a facility where friends and colleagues are working.

Los Angeles and PREA

Last year, auditors conducted the antithesis of a rubber stamp audit in Los Angeles.

The January 2018 report evaluated the Century Regional Detention Facility (CRDF), LA County’s large women’s jail located in Lynwood, CA, for its compliance with PREA standards. Over the course of 138 pages, the report—which was done at the request of the LA Sheriff’s Department— described in detail the jail’s failure to comply with 41 out of the 43 relevant standards.

The report represented approximately six months of work, including nearly three months of off-site preparations, and three days inside the jail. Among the failures auditors noted were that passersby could see some women’s bodies as they showered, and that vending machines and food pallets were placed in such a way that “could contribute to sexual abuse” by creating hidden alcoves.

They found that LASD hiring practices did not include asking potential hires about whether they had a history of sexual misconduct. And the team also discovered that not only were complaint boxes accessible to the deputies who might well be the subject of a complaint, but that an inmate in segregation who decided to report sexual abuse would have to hand her complaint directly to a deputy–again, possibly the subject of her complaint.

But the Lynwood jail report was never meant to be made public.

That’s because it was not an official audit at all. Instead, it was a field training opportunity for a cohort of seven auditor trainees, which included one attorney and six people with corrections or law enforcement backgrounds. The trainees were accompanied by six faculty from the PREA Resource Center and the Department of Justice.

Between the number of auditors investigating and, perhaps, the willingness of freshly-minted auditors to go the extra mile, their team effort resulted in an unusually thorough report–a report that only saw the light of day after the Los Angeles Times managed to acquire the lengthy document, and then posted the report on their site.

In addition to what the report revealed about the Lynwood jail’s overall environment, there are indications that much work remains to be done in making the facility safe for inmates. In February, LASD deputy Giancarlo Scotti was criminally charged with sexually assaulting six female inmates at Lynwood, between March and September of 2017.

And at least five former Lynwood inmates (some of whom are likely the same women mentioned in the criminal charges), have filed federal lawsuits against Scotti and the LA County Sheriff’s Department alleging sexual assaults by the former deputy.

Two of those lawsuits, involving three of the women, have recently been settled with LA County for $3.9 million.

Still, a common refrain among auditors and advocates is that PREA audits are not meant to be “gotcha” moments. The goal, they say, is to help facility leadership honestly assess staffs’ and inmates’ safety and then fix what needs to be fixed.

And to do that requires transparency.

“In general, American prisons and jails are incredibly closed environments, and unnecessarily so,” Stannow said. “We all need to demand to know what’s happening inside, because one of the reasons we have such a tremendous problem of sexual abuse in detention in the United States is that these are such closed-off environments.

“And when there’s no public scrutiny, that’s when ill-intentioned people have the ability to do horrible things.”

 This is a condensed and slightly edited version of an article that appeared in WitnessLA, part of an investigative series made possible with the generous support of the Fund for Investigative Journalism. The full article can be downloaded here.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Women Ignored in Incarceration Reform, says New York Panel

Women are the fastest-growing population in U.S. jails, but the “damage” this has wreaked on families has been largely ignored, a conference launching a seven-year initiative aimed at reducing female incarceration in New York City was told Wednesday.

Women are the fastest-growing population in U.S. jails, but the effect this has on families has been largely ignored, a New York conference was told Wednesday.

Implementing long-term, meaningful solutions for women and families remain too few and far between, experts said at a three-person panel unveiling a new initiative aimed at reforming criminal justice system to better serve women.

“The damage this system does to the individual, it also does to their family,” said Soffiyah Elijah, executive director of the Alliance of Families for Justice, a New York-based nonprofit. “The damage it does to the family, it also does to the community—and the damage it does to that community, it does to our society as well.”

The panel, organized by The New York Women’s Foundation, was held to launch the foundation’s Justice Initiative & Collaborative Fund, a seven-year initiative to that focuses on ameliorating the effects of incarceration on women and families in the New York City.

In 2016, Vera Institute of Justice and the Safety and Justice Challengereleased a report that found the number of women in local jails in the United States was almost 14 times what it was in the 1970s—a far higher growth rate than for men.

Female incarceration rates have increased, even as crime rates declined nationwide.

In the U.S., about 80 percent of women in jail are mothers with young children, and many are single moms. Eighty-two percent of women in jails suffer from alcohol or drug addiction, and many of them are poor and struggle with mental health issues, the Vera report found.

They are often jailed and charged with minor offenses and have not been convicted.

Many incarcerated women are from rural communities, and researchers are beginning to explore solutions. This week, the Urban Institute released a study examining a pilot project in Tennessee that aims to address the particular needs of incarcerated women from rural communities.

In New York, through the Justice Initiative & Collaborative Fund, The New York Women’s Foundation plans to invest in community-based  programs that include alternatives to incarceration for women and assistance to the families of jailed women, in collaboration with other foundations, nonprofit groups, and representatives from government, the private sector, and academia.

One key focus will be racial disparities in New York’s justice system that have landed a disproportionate number of African-American and Hispanic women behind bars.

Another priority is expediting women’s removal from Rikers Island—the city’s main jail complex that has earned a national reputation for neglect and abuse of incarcerated people—and investing in more humane and safe alternatives that promote justice.

Jonathan Lippman, a former Chief Judge of New York and the head of a commission that recommended the closure of Rikers, announced his support for the initiative at Wednesday’s event.

“Women don’t belong (in Rikers Island),” he said. “The vast majority there are nonviolent, and there are definitely better places for them to be than in that miserable facility.”

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced last year that the jail could be closed by 2027.

Lippman chaired the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, which was established to examine the future of the Rikers facility in the context of systemic criminal justice reform.

Earlier this year, the Commission released an updated report, recommending that the facility be shut down sooner than 2027.

J. Gabriel Ware is a TCR new intern. Readers’ comments are welcome.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Mother’s Day Behind Bars

The rate of growth for female incarceration has outpaced that of males by 50 percent since 1980–and over 60 percent of women in state prisons have a child under 18, according to a fact sheet released Thursday by the Sentencing Project, ahead of Mother’s Day.

The rate of growth for female incarceration has outpaced that of males by 50 percent since 1980–and over 60 percent of women in state prisons have a child under 18, according to a national advocacy group report released just ahead of Mother’s Day.

According to an updated fact sheet released by The Sentencing Project, the number of women and girls in detention ballooned from 26,000 to 213,722 between 1980 and 2016.

The incarceration rate of white women in state and federal prisons grew by 44 percent between 2000 and 2016, compared to 12 percent growth for Hispanic women; while the incarceration rate for African-American women fell by 53 percent during this time period.

See also: Treat Women Prisoners with Dignity, Texas Report Says

Incarceration rates– and conditions– vary dramatically throughout the states. Looking at 2016 alone, the states with the highest rates of female imprisonment were Oklahoma, Kentucky, South Dakota, Idaho and Montana. Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Maine were at the lowest end of the spectrum.

Women in state prisons are significantly more likely to have been detained for property or drug crimes than their male counterparts, according to the report.

And while 85 percent of incarcerated youth are boys, over 50 percent of youth incarcerated for running away are girls. Girls are also more likely than boys to be arrested for other low-level offenses such as truancy and curfew violations.

The report also found that Native American girls are incarcerated at four times the rate as white girls, at 134 per 100,000 versus 32 per 100,000. African-American girls were found to be incarcerated at a rate of 110 per 100,000.

The report also said Hispanic girls are 38 percent more likely to be imprisoned than white girls.

A study published by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition in April found that over 81 percent of incarcerated women they polled were mothers. Over 58 percent reported having been sexually abused or assaulted as a child.

According to national studies, pregnant inmates are more likely to have complicated and higher-risk pregnancies than women in the general population,” wrote Lindsay Linder, author of the Texas study, noting that this results “in a higher numbers of stillbirths, miscarriages, and ectopic pregnancies.”

Women who responded to the survey say they had very little access to adequate health care; and some claimed their newborns were taken from them soon after birth.

This summary was prepared by Victoria Mckenzie, deputy editor of The Crime Report.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Women ‘Disregarded’ in Justice Reform, Says Texas Group

Recent prison reforms in Texas and across the country have failed to reverse, or even slow, the rate of women’s incarceration, says the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. In a report released Friday, the group calls on policymakers to address the “root causes” of women’s involvement in the justice system with counseling and diversion programs. instead of putting them in jail.

Women have been left out of the national focus on justice reform, even as the number of incarcerated females has increased, according to a Texas advocacy group.

A report released Thursday by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition says that even as the state has reduced its male prison population, the female incarceration has grown.

“Because women comprise only a small portion of the overall incarcerated population, their needs are largely disregarded in larger criminal justice reform conversations,” said Coalition executive director Leah Pinney in her introduction to the report. “Most of the programs that exist within and outside the criminal justice system are geared toward men.

“With little data on who these women are or how they became entangled in the system, it is not surprising that recent reforms in Texas and across the country have failed to reverse, or even slow, the rate of women’s incarceration.”

The report, written by Lindsay Linder,  says the state corrections system currently holds more than 12,000  women, the majority of them imprisoned  for non-violent offenses.

Even as Texas reduced its male incarcerated population by over 8,500 between 2009-2016, the number of women behind bars increased by 554 during that time–representing an increase from 7.7 percent to 8.5 percent of the total number of incarcerees, the report said.

The report also noted that the number of women in Texas jails awaiting trial,
totaling around 6,300,  has grown 48 percent since 2011, even as the number of female arrests in Texas has decreased by 20 percent over the same time period.

Linder proposed gender-specific support, treatment and diversion options that address the “unique” circumstances that can bring women into contact with the justice system, such as physical or sexual abuse, mental health issues and substance-use disorders.

“These improvements will hold women accountable while helping them heal and allowing them to remain in their communities and with their families—essential steps to improve public safety and reduce costs associated with incarceration,” she wrote.

In a survey of 400 incarcerated women, the organization found that nearly 60 percent said they suffered from sexual abuse or assault as a child and more than half said their household income before taxes was less than $10,000. More than 80 percent were mothers.

The group urged emphasizing pretrial diversion programs for non-violent crimes, especially for pregnant women or those with primary custody of a child, and investing in support programs at the community level to help women deal with trauma before being introduced into the criminal justice system.

It also recommended specialized treatment for women on probation or with substance abuse issues and reforming the bail system to help women in poverty.

Responding to the paper, State Rep. James White, chairman of the House Corrections Committee, said his committee would examine the problems, The Texas Tribune reported.

from https://thecrimereport.org

OK Grapples with High Female Incarceration Rate

Oklahoma leads the nation in female incarceration – at a rate more than twice the national average. On Wednesday, legislators, activists and academics will explore how to reduce the rate in a livestreamed conference hosted by The Atlantic magazine in collaboration with Reveal, of California’s Center for Investigative Reporting.

The stories behind Oklahoma’s disproportionately high female incarceration rate are the subject of an upcoming investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and a forum in Oklahoma City that will explore the experiences of women in the state’s justice system.

On Wednesday, September 20, The Atlantic will host Defining Justice: The Experience of Women and Children Behind Bars in collaboration with Reveal. Journalists from Reveal, including senior editor Ziva Branstetter, will discuss our upcoming investigation and data analysis examining the roots of the problem.

Defining Justice will confront key questions surrounding women in Oklahoma’s criminal justice system: Why is the women’s incarceration rate in Oklahoma so high? What are the long-term human costs to women and children affected by the justice system? And what solutions would create a criminal justice system more responsive to women?

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin will join the program for a one-on-one discussion on the political path toward criminal justice reform in Oklahoma, moderated by The Atlantic’s contributing editor Alison Stewart.

Stewart and Branstetter will moderate discussions throughout the day, along with Allison Herrera, a reporter and social media editor at Public Radio International; and David Fritze, executive editor of Oklahoma Watch. Herrera and The Frontier, an Oklahoma-based news website, partnered with Branstetter on Reveal’s investigation.

Speakers include policymakers, advocates, justice experts, journalists and women who have been incarcerated in Oklahoma prisons. Among the experts taking part in the discussions are Sheila Harbert, chief community outreach officer for the Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma; and Mimi Tarrasch, executive director of Women in Recovery.

Also scheduled to speak are: Kris Steele, executive director of The Education and Employment Ministry and former speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives; and Susan Sharp, presidential professor emerita at the University of Oklahoma and author of “Mean Lives, Mean Laws: Oklahoma’s Women Prisoners.”

“Defining Justice” is the first in a series of three events by The Atlantic examining aspects of the American criminal justice system and how they affect women and children in cities across the country. TheAtlantic.com is running an ongoing digital reporting series, The Presence of Justice, which focuses on efforts across the nation to move beyond the age of mass incarceration.

Reveal will release its investigation into Oklahoma’s female incarceration rate on our website, podcast and radio show with PRX later this month. Sign up for our newsletter to get the story sent straight to your inbox.

Defining Justice will be recorded and streamed live online by The Atlantic. You can follow the discussion on social media using the hashtag #DefiningJustice.

TCR is pleased to republish this article, produced by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, a California-based nonprofit news organization. Learn more at revealnews.org and subscribe to the Reveal podcast, produced with PRX, at revealnews.org/podcast. Readers’ comments are welcome.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Older Women Leaving Prison ‘Less Likely to Return to Crime’

Women aged 46 and over show greater willingness to rebuild their lives after leaving prison, according to a National Institute of Justice-supported study. Gender-nurtured anxiety about facing life on the outside alone and penniless is one reason. The study authors say their findings should persuade authorities to devote greater resources and job counseling to such women before their release.

Photo by qthomasbower via Flickr

Photo by qthomasbower via Flickr

The older a woman is upon release from prison, the more likely she is to re-integrate into civilian society and avoid recidivism, according to a study by Erin M. Kerrison , Ronet Bachman and Raymond Paternoster.

The study, supported by the National Institute of Justice, examined the cases of 218 women released from Delaware prisons during the 1990s, and followed up with interviews with more than half of them during 2009-2011.   One recurring outcome the authors came across was that women aged 46 or older were more likely to focus on rehabilitating themselves after release than younger women. In some cases, they were motivated by the pressure of time to rebuild lives that had been spent too long away from children or loved ones.

Such women were more likely to “work harder to maintain those important components of identity” when given a second chance, wrote Kerrison (University of California, Berkeley); Bachman (University of Delaware); and Paternoster (University of Maryland).

Even women who had been substance abusers recognized that “a tremendous amount of work had to be done to get clean, stay clean, and redeem their perceived failure at such a significant gender role, like motherhood.” study said.

“… [The momentum] for change appears to be strongly linked to an understanding that the undesired fate of dying alone in prison or on the street is a more conceivable reality for women who are released at a later age, than it is for women who leave prison when they are younger.”

The authors did not include comparative data for men experiencing the same circumstances as the women they interviewed, but  they point out in several places throughout the study that there has been a great deal of research focusing on male reentry rates and patterns.

At a time when women are emerging as a growing demographic in the nation’s corrections systems, they suggest that a focus on separating women by their ages and maturity may help to improve the design of rehabilitating/reentry programming.

But the authors were careful to draw only cautious conclusions from their work.

“We are not advocating for longer prison sentences for drug-involved women.” the authors said, noting instead that more “proactive attention” should be paid to finding post-prison employment or counseling for women likely to benefit from it.

That would “avoid wasting resources [on] people who are not yet ready to desist (and will not benefit from employment) and avoid creating perverse incentives for those who are still actively involved in crime.”

The full study is available here.

This report was prepared by TCR staff intern Shannon Alomar.

from http://thecrimereport.org