“Joe” didn’t know his cellmate was a sexual predator. Not a single member of staff at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego County, run by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), where Joe was imprisoned in the summer of 2009, bothered to tell him. In fact, Joe claims, one guard told him his new cellmate was an “all right guy.”
Joe’s roommate was serving a 72-year sentence for brutally raping and sodomizing a woman while knowingly carrying HIV. A week before being placed with Joe, the man had battered his previous cellmate in a bloody fight.
Sure enough, after two days lying in wait, Joe’s roommate attacked and sexually assaulted him—threatening to kill him with a prison shank if he cried out. The attacks were excruciating, repeated and carried on for four days.
Joe was released from prison in 2011 and sued the CDCR for failing to protect him. This past May, his lawyers forced CDCR to acknowledge that putting a violent sex offender in a cell with Joe was out of policy. A settlement was reached a month later.
Inmate advocates largely agree that state prisons like the one Joe was assaulted in may be on the verge of becoming sex-abuse free—or as close to rape-free as possible.
Joe’s settlement, perhaps not coincidentally, came just weeks after the U.S. Justice Department issued a series of uniform guidelines for preventing sexual abuse in American correctional facilities. The guidelines mandate intensive screening of prison staff—who are believed to perpetrate half of the sexual assaults inside prison walls—ensure medical treatment and mental health counseling for victims, and grant prisoners the right to report sexual assault to an outside agency.
San Diego CityBeat, which broke the news of Joe’s story and published a lengthy investigation into the local epidemic of prison rape, reports that prison officials are taking the new standards seriously. Because of these new standards, inmate advocates largely agree that state prisons like the one Joe was assaulted in may be on the verge of becoming sex-abuse free—or as close to rape-free as possible.
“The Bureau of Prisons has until August 20th to be in compliance,” Chris Daley, deputy executive director of the prison advocacy group Just Detention International, tells TakePart. “The good news is, they’re pretty far along. There are a few gray areas to be worked out, but where the regulations are clear the BoJ seems to be trying to move forward in an effective way to create on-the-ground policies. And they’re making sure facilities understand that these regulations have support in the federal government, all the way to the attorney general himself.”
However, while state and federal prisons appear to be on the way to becoming safer, there are dozens of less-talked about detention facilities where the safety of inmates is still up in the air.
On May 17 of this year, the same day the DOJ released its standards, President Obama issued a memo explicitly specifying that “all agencies with Federal confinement facilities that are not already subject to the Department of Justice’s final [PREA] rule to work with the Attorney General [are required] to propose, within 120 days of the date of this memorandum, any rules or procedures necessary to satisfy the requirements of PREA.”
Obama was referring to Homeland Security, The Bureau of Indian Affairs, Heath and Human Services, and the U.S. Marshall Service. All of these massive bureaucracies run detention facilities—many of which are extremely covert. Obama’s memo didn’t mandate that these facilities implement the standards laid out by the DOJ. Instead, he demanded they come up with their own standards—a monumental task given the slim four-month timeframe he allotted.
By default, then, most of these agencies will likely have to conform to the DOJ standards—something that Just Detention’s Daley says most have expressed a willingness to do.
The Department of Defense, as you may have heard, is a federal agency that runs a detention center or two. Aside from detaining military members facing court martial, the DoD is charged with running Guantanamo Bay and foreign sites like Abu Ghraib in Iraq. So far, neither the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, nor President Obama have said a word publicly about how PREA standards will apply to Guantanamo and other foreign detention centers like it.
“We believe that these are confinement facilities run by the U.S. government,” says Daley, “and we’ll be very disappointed if, at the end of this process, that is not a very public position taken by DoD.”
The Department of Justice didn’t return TakePart’s repeated calls for clarification. The DoD has until Sept. 17 to issue its preliminary guidelines.
“There’s no indication right now that anyone is revolting on the White House,” says Daley. “It’s early in the process. Until we see drafts, it will be hard to see how seriously these agencies are taking things. But this is a serious issue. If these departments want to do it well, they are going to have to devote serious resources. We’ll know one way or the other in a couple months.”
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