PREA in the News

Franklin County jail to implement sexual assault prevention policy

Chambersburg, PA>> The Franklin County Jail and prisons throughout the nation are planning to meet the requirements of a federal law protecting inmates from rape and sexual assault.

"It's the elimination of something that never happened," Franklin County Commissioner Robert Thomas said. "The point is to make sure it never does."

The Franklin County Jail has not had any sexual assault or harassment in its history, Thomas said.

The nation's prisons and jails report about 900 substantiated incidents of sexual victimization a year, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Each year about 3 percent of inmates in jails and 4 percent of inmates in state or federal prisons are victimized sexually by fellow inmates or prison staff.

Congress with a bipartisan vote in 2003 passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which requires each agency to have a written policy mandating zero tolerance toward all forms of sexual abuse. A prison is required to outline a response to any sexual abuse and to designate a coordinator and compliance manager.

"Education is the biggest thing," Franklin County Warden Daniel Keen said, "education of both of jail staff and inmates. "We're already doing everything. Overall it's going to make us better."

The jail is equipped physically to comply with the mandate, he said. He does not anticipate hiring additional personnel to comply with PREA.

"It will be a challenge in the central booking center," Keen said.

Juveniles booked at the jail must be out of sight and hearing of adults being held, he said. Mirrored film on the windows will correct much of the problem.

The county must pay an estimated $8,000 to $12,000 for a PREA audit conducted by the American Corrections Association.

"We're talking about safety," Commissioner David Keller said. "This is a burden we should be willing to bear."

Agencies failing to comply with PREA can be penalized. States can lose 5 percent of DOJ grant money intended for their prisons. Keen said the county jail could lose inmates that the state pays the county to hold.

Under the act, corrections facilities must be audited by August, but the national program has just 123 auditors, according to Keen. A facility flunking the audit has 180 days to correct its failings.

PREA requires the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics to identify annually common characteristics of both victims and perpetrators of prison rape as well as prisons with a high incidence of prison rape.

The character of an inmate and the nature of his or her housing unit and the environment within a prison affects an inmate's risk and fear of victimization, according to a recent study by researchers Barbara Owen, of California State University Fresno, James Wells of Commonwealth Research Consulting and others. Inmate-to-inmate sexual violence and staff sexual misconduct may be related.

Five of the 10 U.S. prisons with the highest rates of inmate-reported rapes are in Texas, whose Gov. Rick Perry has said he will not comply with some aspects of PREA.

Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John Wetzel reported nine substantiated incidents of sexual violence in state prisons in 2012 and 10 in 2011. Sexual misconduct and harassment by staff accounted for more than half the incidents.

Nationwide, allegations of sexual victimization in prisons have increased since 2005 while the number of substantiated cases has not changed, according to the DOJ.

People with mental health problems report rates of inmate-to-inmate sexual violence at a much higher rate (at least four times greater) than inmates without mental issues, according to the DOJ. The mentally ill comprise an increasing part of the population in prisons and the Franklin County Jail.

Jim Hook can be reached at 717-262-4759.

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