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PREA: A Long Road for Incarcerated Survivors

“Sexual abuse is a crime, and should not be the punishment for a crime.”
– US Department of Justice Letter to Governors, March 5, 2015

prison stock photoWhile this statement might seem obvious to those who work in sexual violence prevention and response, it represents a profound shift in how the wider public, and even those in corrections, view sexual assault in the context of prison. Rape and sexual harassment have long been considered an inevitable—or even deserved—part of the prison experience. Additionally, sexual violence is ingrained in the prison system, perpetrated (by inmates as well as guards) as a means of establishing and maintaining power dynamics and prison hierarchy.

The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) was passed in 2003 to address the epidemic of sexual assault in all corrections facilities, but comprehensive guidelines didn’t take effect until 2012, with the National Standards to Prevent, Detect, and Respond to Prison Rape. Finally, just this month, May 2015, the Department of Justice will begin to enforce those guidelines by withholding funding from states that are not in compliance. The National Standards specify that any confinement facility (including prisons, jails, lock-ups, juvenile facilities, and community and immigrant detention centers) must:

    • Adopt a “zero-tolerance policy” towards sexual assault and sexual harassment
    • Train both staff and inmates on sexual abuse
    • Train staff on effective and professional communication with LGBTQ and gender non-conforming inmates
    • Provide at least two internal and one external way for inmates to report abuse
    • Provide access to outside advocates for emotional support related to the abuse, and provide as much confidentiality as possible
    • Discipline perpetrators of sexual assault, both guards and inmates
    • Separate youth in adult correctional facilities and prevent unsupervised contact with adults
    • Provide access to support services for inmates with disabilities and limited English proficiency
    • Ensure inmates have timely access to appropriate medical and mental health services, on par with community level of care

PREA in Name Only

“I never realized that once I was labeled as a criminal, I had forfeited my right to be considered a victim.”
– Elizabeth A. Reid in her essay PREA and the Importance of Litigation in Its Enforcement: Holding Guards who Rape Accountable, winner of the 2013 Yale Law Journal Writing Contest.

Prior to this year, attorneys could use PREA as a basis for cases of sexual assault and harassment, but that was as far as the law went with respect to monitoring or enforcing the guidelines. Elizabeth Reid, an activist in post-prison education and social justice, was a survivor of rape perpetrated by prison staff. PREA was widely publicized in the prison where she was incarcerated, Elizabeth recounts, and she and the other inmates were routinely informed of their rights—but that was where PREA protection stopped. Guards and corrections staff still carried out sexual assaults, survivors who spoke out were punished, and although investigations were supposedly conducted, the claims were always deemed “unfounded.” As this cycle repeated, it reinforced the powerlessness of inmates and the guards’ freedom to act with impunity.

The North Carolina Approach

In 2014, the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault (NCCASA) formed the Prison Rape Elimination Act Advisory & Advocacy Board (PAAB) to help stakeholders across the state come into compliance with PREA. The goal of this group is to get rape crisis centers, correction officials, allied professionals, and community organizations together at the same table to learn about PREA and build relationships. Working side by side, the different groups can share information, identify needs, and close gaps in services in a collaborative way. The Center has been participating in monthly PAAB conference calls, and hopes to use its membership on the board as a platform for furthering advocacy and support for incarcerated survivors detained in Orange County. Read more from NCCASA about The North Carolina Approach to PREA.


Rosemary Byrnes is an MSW (Master of Social Work) intern from UNC-Chapel Hill. She is spending the summer working on various projects related to improving services and access for survivors.

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