Posts Tagged ‘Department of Justice’

It’s an optimistic headline: “Prison Rape: Obama’s Program to Stop It”. It leads into a comprehensive New York Review of Books article on three recently released Federal government publications.  Two of these documents examine sexual abuse in the nation’s detention centers while the other outlines the Department of Justice’s regulations for eliminating prison rape. All three aim to address the appalling number of people—young and old, female and male, citizen and those awaiting deportation— who  routinely suffer sexual violence while in lockup, an estimated 209,000 plus every year according to the Justice Department.

So where’s the optimism? The guidelines established by the Obama administration are—on paper, at least—good ones. As the reviewers David Kaiser and Lovisa Stannow (both staunch advocates for victims of prison sexual assault) note, the new recommendations address pivotal issues: how detention centers are staffed, how those staffs are trained in sexual abuse issues, and how inmates are supervised. Equally important is how offenders are evaluated for their potential as either sexual prey or predator. This provision is crucial in protecting young offenders, especially LGBT youth who are in greater danger of sexual harassment and abuse by peers and adult inmates. Once this information is obtained housing can be assigned based on vulnerability, which in the case of minors means not being housed with adults. There are also new standards on how prisoners can report sexual assault and on how that information is handled and investigated by staff. Kaiser and Stannow write that if these standards are successful—“and we believe they will be”—then the incidences of prison rape will be reduced dramatically.

But I can’t share their optimism. I wish I could. My skepticism stems from the way in which these regulations are to be enforced.  Enforcement will be the responsibility of the state departments of corrections and the correctional staff in charge of prisons and jails.

Anyone who has worked in a detention facility knows the power of frontline staff to sabotage whatever standards or procedures are put in place. In my ten years working as a high school teacher in a county prison I’ve watched this culture of obstruction play out as many correctional staff subvert—sometimes blatantly, most times covertly—everything from innovative grant-funded projects designed to reduce recidivism in young offenders to simple routines such as making sure all inmates daily attend their assigned programs, all measures that would provide true “safety and security” for staff as well as inmates and that would further the stated goal of incarceration: rehabilitation.

What’s behind this apparently illogical obstruction? It is the same dynamic that informs so much of what goes on in any detention system; it is certainly the dynamic that is behind all prison sexual violence: the power grab. All lockups whether they be for adults, minors or immigrants awaiting deportation are run on a hierarchy of power: Who’s got it, who wants it and what you’ll do to get it. Within this structure there is the inevitable scramble for power and position in an environment where everyone feels impotent.

People who are locked up live every day of their incarceration with this lack of control (and for so many of them, every day of their lives) and so understandably make the power grab. This is especially true for young offenders who are the most vulnerable in this predatory world. Ironically it is just as pronounced with correctional staff. Over my years in the prison system I’ve often heard officers openly complain that the work they do is just as dangerous, if not more so than other law enforcement officers, yet they feel they are underpaid and not respected as professionals by their peers and society in general. So what better way to “stick it” to the system, to “show” wardens, county executives, the Feds, civilians, and certainly inmates that COs are the ones who make or break things in prison than by subverting regulations, routines, and structures.

The Obama guidelines are strong in addressing the delicate and fraught issue of sexual violence. This is especially true when it comes to the victimization of young people and the sexually vulnerable. Is it wise then to leave their implementation in the hands of the people who are themselves part of the problem both in terms of upholding standards and in terms of actually being sexual assailants themselves? (Reports show that half of all sexual abuse is committed by correctional staff.)

Kaiser and Stannow are confident that enforcement of these regulations “will make American detention facilities better run, more humane, and safer places in general.” It is a hopeful vision. But if we want detention centers that are humane and safe we have to go beyond a fresh set of regulations. We need to make fundamental changes in the prison system: confront the perverted power structure—and struggle—that dominates these institutions and that leads to sexual violence and replace it with a form of justice that truly values rehabilitation and that restores dignity and respect to victim, inmate and correctional staff. Radical steps? Yes. Do we have a choice? The numbers say we don’t—because each incident of prison rape radically changes a person’s life forever.

Originally posted on Juvenile Justice Information Exchange

Sex and power — forces rampant in our prison system, thwarted and twisted by the jail culture. Lock up large numbers of the same gender and the frustrated sexual energy is palpable. Likewise, in jail everyone — wardens, correctional officers, inmates — wants power, fights for it, manipulates for it, in a place where everyone is made to feel impotent. The locked up teenagers I taught over a ten year period in an adult county facility and about whom I write in I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup, had a great image for that lack of power: crabs in a bucket, stepping over each other, pulling down the ones closest to the top, so nobody wins.

Sex and power, as everyone knows, are the ingredients of rape. Consequently, the prison rape numbers are high. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics 88,500 incarcerated adults were sexually abused — by correctional staff or other inmates — in 2009. This number doesn’t include the kids who have been sexually victimized while locked up, an even higher percentage.

Disturbing numbers made even more disturbing by the fact that seven years ago the George W. Bush congress (surprisingly) passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act.

It’s a good bill that raised the alarm regarding widespread prison sexual assaults. It also established the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission to investigate and make recommendations on how best to stop prisoner sexual abuse. In June 2009 the Commission finally released its report setting out certain reforms. However, the Obama administration has yet to adopt those findings.

The recommendations are thorough, straightforward and sensible. Among them, instituting zero tolerance policies of all sexual abuse. Training staff to identify potential sexual assault situations. Teaching inmates their right to report sexual harassment without reprisals. Screening new inmates for their risk of being sexually abused or abusive.

When I read what the Commission suggested I wondered why prisons haven’t already been taking these commonsensical, low cost measures which would have spared thousands of men and women pain and suffering. And I wondered what this failure said about our criminal justice system’s attitude — and our society’s attitude — towards prison rape, and prisoners in general?

But if we really want to get at the causes of prison sexual assaults we have to dig deeper than a commissioned report.

The system is the problem. Our jails are run on a culture of violence. Walk into a jail and you’ll know that violence. Every day I worked in the county jail I was hit by it. The smells of men packed into overcrowded dorms; of exposed toilets; of rancid food. The constant din of the PA system; of the blaring television; of officers and inmates shouting over it all. The sight of a handcuffed inmate being dragged down the hall to the Special Housing Unit by the black-clad emergency response team. Just another day in the county lockup.

A more subtle message of this culture of violence is the dehumanization of the body. Sounds pretty philosophical, but in jail it translates real easy: Your body isn’t yours. You dress, undress, shower, shit under somebody’s eye, electronic or otherwise. You can be stripped down and exposed to cameras; you can be prodded and explored — “cavity searched” — all at corrections’ command. My jailhouse students knew this. During one of corrections’ clampdowns on jailhouse tattoos, one of the kids, a tattoo artist, commented, “The way police see it, when we do our shit, we’re defacing county property.” When human beings are treated as commodities, sexual assault becomes inevitable; and this inevitability fits the publics’ perception: Prison rape happens. (Yet, can you imagine the outbreak if these attacks took place in any other public care institution?)

Prison rape can only be diminished when we change the culture of violence within our jails. It’s not impossible. It is being done in some prisons across the country where administrators such as Sunny Schwartz in the San Francisco county jails have had the courage and vision to implement programs in restorative justice and violence reduction programs, for example. These approaches, when supported by administrators and uniformed staff, have reduced sexual violence by demanding full accountability from inmates and correctional staff alike while ensuring that each person is valued and respected.

In March, Attorney General Holder told a congressional committee that addressing prison rape “…is something that I think needs to be done, not tomorrow, but yesterday.” Today is “yesterday.” The victims of prison rape can’t wait for another “yesterday.”

Originally posted on Huffington Post

“Monster Factory” is a slang phrase for a prison, one that fits the popular view of a jail: a place where ruthless thugs are kept locked up by sadistic guards. These stock images surround us—in movies, television shows, music lyrics, and newspaper stories.

One such “monster factory” recently hit the media when the Department of Justice released a 42 page report accusing New York State’s Westchester County jail of violating prisoners’ civil rights. As Preet Bharara, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, bluntly stated the jail had ‘utterly failed’ to protect inmates and to provide humane conditions. (New York Times)

Having worked at Westchester County jail for ten years teaching locked up teenagers who were either awaiting trial or serving time, I found that report painful to read. It catalogs abuses in which correctional staff used excessive force on prisoners such as administering pepper spray to already subdued inmates at point-blank range in crowd control doses; slamming a female inmate’s head into a wall; dragging another inmate along the floor by his handcuffed wrists. The Department of Justice also cites the county jail for using “threatening and aggressive verbal strategies” regardless of an inmate’s “mental impairments” which only make situations more volatile.

While these are horrible things, when I first heard about the investigation I felt a sense of elation. Finally, I thought, the jail is being held accountable for some of the abuses I and my colleagues had long been aware of.  Maybe now kids won’t be subjected to needless physical force and intimidation. Maybe now they won’t be thrown in to disciplinary isolation for long stretches of time, where the conditions seriously threaten their mental health. And maybe now these locked up teens will get decent medical and mental-health care.

Ultimately, though, I felt sad and disheartened by that report. Westchester County jail isn’t a “monster factory.”  Most buildings have been modernized. Efforts are being made to set up job training programs, add more educational opportunities, and provide pre-release counseling and planning services. I found myself thinking, “If these kinds of abuses can happen at the Westchester jail, in a county with all the money, education and sophistication of a New York City metropolitan suburb, what kinds of things are happening in jails in other parts of the country with far fewer resources.”

Then it hit me. Westchester jail is a “monster factory” because every jail is a “monster factory.” I had been missing the irony of the phrase. A factory is a place where things are made. And indeed, as the Department of Justice report showed, jail conditions can make monsters out of people.

The Westchester jail’s emergency response team came in for some particularly hard criticism in the report. ERT, an elite group with special uniforms and SWAT gear, carries a certain cache in the prison. Made up of officers who volunteer to serve on a rotational basis, the squad is sent in to break up fights. It’s a demanding job that requires not only brawn but also a cool head and iron-fisted restraint.

I worked with a number of COs both in the classroom and on the blocks who volunteered for the team. They were decent men and women who on a day-to-day basis seemed to care about the kids—even the worst troublemakers—we both worked with. But something happened to them when they put on that all-black uniform to do their ERT stint. Later, when their rotation was over and they returned to their usual posts, they would talk unselfconsciously about the brutality of what they had done.

Listening to them talk—or more often, overhearing them as they joked about it with their peers—I was struck by how easily many of them had shed the humanity, commonsense and good judgment they had shown working with my students. Hidden behind body shields and reflective visors, the men and women on ERT became faceless, rage-filled forces accountable to no one, not even themselves.

There’s a lot of suffering in those 42 pages. It is a roll call of abuses not only of the kept but of their keepers, both victims of a culture of threat and violence. It is an indictment of how this country runs its jails and of their damaging affects on the people who must survive in them. But more importantly, it is a cautionary tale, its lesson as old as history: that all human beings, good, ordinary people are capable of the greatest atrocities.