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Protecting prisoners from sexual assault

Compassion | Skyrocketing reports of prison rape point to the need for greater accountability
by Rob Holmes
Posted 10/24/18, 04:33 pm

Since new rules went into effect to make prisons safer for prisoners, reports of sexual assault behind bars have increased 180 percent, according to a recent report by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. The numbers point to increased reporting of prison rapes—a positive sign—but concerns remain about how corrections officials handle the growing number of abuse allegations.

An estimated 200,000 inmates are sexually abused in U.S. detention facilities every year, The Marshall Project reported. This year, Congress increased funding for prison rape elimination programs by 50 percent to $15.5 million. The programs fall under the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) of 2003. In 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice released new PREA standards obligating detention facilities to investigate every report of sexual assault. Prisons must also provide inmates multiple ways to report incidents.

Since then, allegations are up but confirmed cases are down, often due to lack of evidence. From 2012 to 2015, after the change to mandated investigations, prison officials substantiated only 8.5 percent of accusations.

Increased reports are “a clear sign that prisoners are starting to trust the system, rather than an indication that sexual abuse in detention is skyrocketing,” Lovissa Stannow, executive director of Just Detention International, told The Marshall Project. She blamed the low number of substantiated reports on officials’ initial assumptions that a report is false and the “very strong tendency to close ranks” to protect colleagues in cases of accusations against a staffer.

Flawed audits of prison facilities point to the mishandling of some allegations, Stannow said. She found that former corrections officers trained by the Justice Department to check PREA compliance had a pattern of issuing “rubber stamp audits” of facilities where abuse ran rampant.

Bureau of Justice Statistics senior statistical adviser Allen Beck told The Marshall Project that increased sensitivity to rape reports, better investigative techniques, and improved record-keeping have all played a role in helping to prove or disprove allegations that might have remained a mystery in the past.

“Right now, what we’re seeing can be largely accounted for by improved record keeping and enhanced sensitivity on the part of inmates and corrections officials on issues of sexual victimization,” Beck said.

Prison Fellowship lauded Congress’ funding increase for PREA. “Sexual assault should never be a part of a prison sentence for incarcerated youth, women, and men,” said James Ackerman, president and CEO of the prison ministry. “This critical funding increase will help jails and prisons meet basic standards for safe, humane treatment, and make our criminal justice system more rehabilitative.”

Associated Press/Photo by Mary Altaffer (file) Associated Press/Photo by Mary Altaffer (file) NYPD Deputy Commissioner Jessica Tisch (right) at a news conference with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio

The case of the smoking body camera

The New York Police Department ordered the shelving of 3,000 units of its newest body camera model after one burst into flames this week. An officer in Staten Island saw smoke coming from his camera and unplugged it from its charger. No one was injured, but the department started an investigation to assess battery safety. Officers began using the Vievu LE5 model, which accounts for about one-fifth of all cameras owned by the department, in August.

For now, officers who have other models of cameras will continue to wear them. But differences in recording software between the models create certain drawbacks.

NYPD Deputy Commissioner Jessica Tisch said pulling the devices means the department may not be able to equip the majority of its officers—especially those on patrol, transit, and housing beats—with body cameras by year’s end. She said the cameras are “a big part of the agency’s commitment to building trust with the community.”

Mount Pleasant, S.C., Senior Police Officer David Ivey told me body cameras are “excellent technology for police.” In his department, most nondesk staff have worn Vievu LE-3 body cameras since mid-2015, but they will soon be replaced with WatchGuard devices. He said the public is right to want body cameras for holding police accountable, and they also help officers avoid spurious accusations.

“In April, during a search warrant case, a young man accused me of unnecessary use of force, but the bodycam showed otherwise,” Ivey said. The family also saw the video and agreed that the allegations were unfounded.

Besides emergency or crisis events, Ivey said a police body camera is useful during investigations: “I flip it on during interviews to help me in filing reports and keeping accurate.” —R.H.

Associated Press/Photo by Ted S. Warren Associated Press/Photo by Ted S. Warren Justices take their seats at the Washington state Supreme Court in Olympia, Wash.

A break for minors

Washington state’s Supreme Court ruled this week that sentences of life without parole are unconstitutional for juvenile offenders. The 5-4 decision came only a week after the court ruled to strike down the state’s capital punishment law.

Washington has 14 people in prison who were sentenced to life without parole as minors. Twenty-one other states and the District of Columbia have banned the practice, according to The Sentencing Project. And 20 states and the District of Columbia no longer have anyone serving such sentences who was convicted as a juvenile.

At the federal level, the U.S. Supreme Court already ruled in 2012 that any mandatory life sentences without parole were unconstitutional for those convicted under 18 except for “those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.” Justices ordered courts to hand out sentences based on each individual case, including consideration of a minor’s family background, education, and any history of violence. Since 2016, another court decision has made the 2012 ruling retroactive, meaning those previously convicted as minors are now entitled to parole hearings. The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, in his dissent, addressed an inevitable problem with the retroactivity.

“Federal and (like it or not) state judges are henceforth to resolve the knotty ‘legal’ question: whether a 17-year-old who murdered an innocent sheriff’s deputy half a century ago was at the time of his trial ‘incorrigible,’” he said.

Of the 29 states that allow juvenile life without parole, three—Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Louisiana—now account for two-thirds of nearly 2,100 juveniles who received the sentence. —R.H.

School of rap

Rapper and businessman Sean “Diddy” Combs announced a $1 million pledge to start a new campus of his charter school network in the Bronx, N.Y. Beginning with 160 kids in grades six and seven, the Bronx campus of Capital Preparatory Schools is set to expand over five years to 650 students, the New York Post reported.

A near-billionaire, Combs’ establishment of the school in the Bronx expands his philanthropic idea from a previous campus in Harlem and another in Bridgeport, Conn.

“I came from the same environment these kids live in every day,” Combs said. “I understand the importance of access to a great education and the critical role it plays in a child’s future.”

Combs’ role as an educational benefactor appears incongruent with his violent past, with incidents including arrest for assault with a deadly weapon, and his partying present, purveying designer vodka and tequila.

But he has six children of his own and said he believes the school will give “historically disadvantaged students … the college and career skills needed to become responsible and engaged citizens for social justice.” —R.H.

Rob Holmes

Rob is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute’s mid-career course. Follow Rob on Twitter @SouthernFlyer.

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