By Liz Ryan
In a statement issued by U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy this week, he called the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) a “watershed piece of legislation” because “the punishment of incarceration does not, and cannot, include a sentence of rape. And yet we know that all too often it does.”
As this week marks the 10th anniversary of Congress’ unanimous passage of this bipartisan legislation, it is now up to the nation’s governors to ensure this important law is enacted throughout the country. Governors must certify compliance by October 1 this year or face federal financial penalties.
For the 100,000 children who languish in adult jails and prisons every year, the PREA law and regulations will have a significant impact on their safety and well-being. While the law arrived too late for Rodney Hulin, his mother, Linda Bruntmyer, was instrumental in the passage of this law. She testified before Congress in 2002 about the brutal rapes of her 16-year-old son Rodney in adult prison and his suicide.
Rodney wrote a grievance letter to prison officials stating, “I have been sexually and physically assaulted several times, by several inmates. I am afraid to go to sleep, to shower, and just about everything else. I am afraid that when I am doing these things, I might die at any minute. Please, sir, help me.” Rodney committed suicide shortly after filing the grievance.
If governors don’t act to protect children under PREA, more teenagers like Rodney will face sexual assault, physical harm and suicide in adult jails and prisons.
Under the PREA regulations, the U.S. Department of Justice states that: “As a matter of policy, the Department supports strong limitations on the confinement of adults with juveniles.” The regulations include the Youthful Inmate Standard, which bans the housing of youth in the general adult population, prohibits contact between youth and adults in common areas, and ensures youth are constantly supervised by staff. At the same time, the regulations require limitations on the use of isolation in complying with the standard.
This standard is consistent with the recent report issued by the U.S. Attorney General’s Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence, co-chaired by the President’s new Office of Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) Administrator Bob Listenbee.
The report concludes that, “We should stop treating juvenile offenders as if they were adults, prosecuting them in adult courts, incarcerating them as adults, and sentencing them to harsh punishments that ignore their capacity to grow.”
It is crucial that governors and local officials implement best practices to fully protect youth in the justice system. In the past several years, states are moving in the direction of removing children from adult jails and prisons, and from the adult criminal justice system altogether.
Rather than place youth in adult jails and prisons, youth can be placed in more appropriate juvenile facilities. Governors can access federal financial support from the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance as well as technical assistance available through U.S. Department of Justice-sponsored centers such as the National PREA Resource Center and the National Center for Youth in Custody.
To ensure that governors focus on enacting PREA, hundreds of constituents have signed petitions, made calls and sent letters to their governors.
The stakes are too high for noncompliance. Governors have the opportunity and obligation to keep youth in the justice system safe.
Liz Ryan is executive director of the Campaign for Youth Justice