The past few years have brought heightened attention to sexual abuse, and sexual harassment thanks to the #MeToo movement. While news reports highlighted more and more highly respectable men in power taking advantage of the women around them; bringing more awareness, creating safe spaces and words, striving to end these forms of victimization. Standards in the workplace tightened, the media elected to become more politically correct and socially coherent, leading to a rise in both allegations and prosecutions of offenders. These standards have paved a path for more victims to come forward, but what about those that have already been prosecuted by the law for different crimes, do they too deserve the same type of treatment? Prisoners often don’t meet many of the standards and norms necessary to be deemed worthy in society. By being placed behind bars, inmates have the potential of becoming the victims of sexual misconduct, harassment, and abuse. Transgender male to female inmates, especially those of color, are placed at having the highest risk of falling prey to this predatory practice within the prison system (Ellenbogen, 2016).
- The Role of Power
- History of PREA
- The Relevance of PREA for LGBTQ Inmates
- Sexual Abuse and Prison Staff
1. The Role of Power
Prisons are isolated places that revolve around power. Power is the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events (power definition – Google Search, n.d.). These forces are controlled by both federal and state governments, overseen by guards and officials, and levels of such power are often exhibited from one prisoner to another. Without ample goods or services to barter with inside of correctional places, many inmates fall prey to other inmates seeking control. Prison rape is one of the most effective ways to manipulate, humiliate, or express power over another inmate within prison walls. Certain characteristics of a person’s body (relating to size, stature, or race), gender expression, or sexuality greatly increase the risks of becoming a victim while serving their sentences. Elements of shame, fear, retaliation, punishment, or isolation often leave some victims silent about the abuse they’ve encountered. This type of rape culture is dominated by power regardless of who the assailant is. This type of violence can be from one prisoner to another, inflicted by guards, or even facilitated and protected by correctional officers. Without proper implementation of PREA (the Prison Rape Elimination Act) guidelines these types of power encounters will heavily prevail, correctional institutitions will be allowed to have a blind eye to the abuse happening throughout their facilities. Identifying the problems that still exist, even with legislative guidelines like PREA for protection is important because until these types of power structures are demolished there will always be victims.
2. History of PREA
The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) was put into legislation in 2003, to serve as a method of of detecting, reporting, and tracking sexual abuse inside of correctional facilities (Ellenboger, 2016). It wasn’t until 2012 that definite, mandatory standards were sealed into place to ensure that inmates have equal protection under the law against sexual abuse while incarcerated in America’s criminal justice systems (Transgender Incarcerated People in Crisis, 2013). Standards placed protections on any detained individual being housed in types of these facilities: juvenile, holding, adult, and immigration. These protections aren’t only limited to sexual abuse, but also serve as protection from all types of sexual misconduct (such as groping or kissing), and forms of sexual harassment that could be encountered while serving time (Prisons and Jail Standards | PREA, 2015). Institutions that choose not to comply with the regulations outlined by PREA can be subjected to hefty fines, and the inmates that were victimized in those facilities are actively able to demand a lawsuit against the facility, based off of a lack of protection under PREA’s guidelines (Transgender Incarcerated People in Crisis, 2013).
3. The Relevance of PREA for LGBTQ Inmates
The prison culture and environment is no different than mainstream society when it comes to transgender inmates. Victimization follows them throughout their punitive, and rehabilitative processes as well. LGBTQ inmates have increased risks of becoming a victim of sexual victim of sexual assault, with transgender women of color having the highest incident rates (Ellenbogen, 2016). Reports have shown that one in three transgender females have become the target of some form of sexual assault (Stahl, 2018). Transgender women are also “13 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than non-transgender people in prison” (Transgender Incarcerated People in Crisis, 2013). During a survey with LGBTQ respondents, it was reported that 12% had been a victim at the hands of staff, 31% were attacked by another inmate, and prison staff orchestrated 76% of assaults by other inmates (Stahl, 2018).
4. Sexual Abuse and Prison Staff
According to a survey done by the Bureau of Justice Statistics for the years of 2011-2012, there were approximately 100,000 incarcerated individuals that were the victims of some form of sexual abuse (Stahl, 2018). Of those 100,000 claims, more than half of the accounts were executed, planned, or permitted by an employee of the correctional institution (Stahl, 2018). If and when an inmate makes an allegation against another inmate or officer, there’s protocol to be followed leading into the investigation. During this time the victim is sometimes placed in protective custody, often times they are placed in solitary confinement for safety reasons (Stahl, 2018). Being placed in seclusion can also place a victim in even more harm; with little surveillance, no witnesses, and official access opens the door for potential retaliation.
Even with more awareness, punishment, legislation, and social movements “incarcerated people are the population most at risk of sexual violence, but their concerns are largely missing from our current cultural moment of reckoning” (Stahl, 2018). Sexual assaults still occur in many correctional facilities nationwide. Preventative legislation like PREA doesn’t always help all those that it’s intended to protect. The power struggles within the prison system itself allow this type of culture and behavior to live on. Adding more jail time to those inmates that victimize another, or mandating jail time for prison officials that cross those boundaries needs to be implemented more seriously at all levels.
PREA:What You Need to Know
Turned Out: Sexual Assault Behind Bars (2004)
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Stahl, A. (2018, February 20). We Can’t Fight Rape Culture Without Fighting Mass Incarceration. Vice. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/j5bv8d/metoo-mass-incarceration-prison-rape
Transgender Incarcerated People in Crisis. (2013). Lambda Legal. https://www.lambdalegal.org/know-your-rights/article/trans-incarcerated-people