Signed into law by President George W. Bush on September 4, 2003, the Prison Rape Elimination Act [Public Law 108-79] calls for a wide range of measures to combat the burgeoning problem of prisoner rape in the U.S. Specifically, the PREA authorizes, among other things, grant money to fund state efforts aimed at reducing the incidence of prisoner rape, the establishment of national standards, and the collection of statistical data [see PLN, March 2004, p. 6].
To date, few studies have addressed the issue of prison rape, according to Data Collections for the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, a BJS status report released on June 30, 2004. As a result, the issue is not well understood. With that in mind, the PREA directs the BJS to collect national statistics on various aspects of prison rape.
Due to the sensitive nature of prison sexual assaults, especially when same-sex attackers are involved, the report notes that prior attempts to gather data through personal interviews and questionnaires have been plagued with low response rates and low reliability. To address these deficiencies, the BJS is developing and testing an interactive computer based survey system known as Audio Computer-Assisted Self-Interviews, or audio-CASI.
With audio-CASI, respondents will answer audio instructions delivered via headphones using a touch screen. Researchers hope the removal of a personal interviewer--while still maintaining some control over the interview setting--will increase prisoners' willingness to report sensitive information and facilitate the process for those with low literacy skills.
The audio-CASI surveys will ask prisoners about several categories of sexual assault. Categories will include abusive sexual contacts, completed nonconsensual sex acts, and attempted nonconsenual sex acts. The survey will also differentiate between sexual assaults committed by staff and those committed by prisoners.
The ultimate goal is, one, to truly and finally get valid and reliable data on a very misunderstood and confusing institutional culture," said Richard Tewksbury, Ph.D., a University of Louisville professor under contract with the BJS to implement the surveys. Once we have that very reliable set of information, it will be utilized in assessing and perhaps modifying policies and practices." Along with Dr. Tewksbury, who has authored many publications on sexual assaults within correctional facilities, BJS has also contracted with Howard Snyder, Ph.D., Director of Systems Research for the National Center for Juvenile Justice, to work as a consultant on juvenile justice issues.
Noting that even with audio-CASI prisoners may still fear retribution for reporting assaults, the BJS will continue to test other assessment methods. Field testing of the audio-CASI method, slated to begin in spring 2005, will involve a random sample of 2,500 prisoners from up to 25 state and federal prisons and local jails.
Because the assessment of juveniles creates special difficulties, separate efforts are underway to develop audio-CASI surveys more amenable to that situation. Specifically, in many states a parent or legal guardian must give consent for survey participation. Additionally, most states require disclosure of sexual assault incidents to the proper authorities. Therefore, [t]hese legal and ethical requirements pose special challenges in designing survey methods that will satisfy internal review boards ... and guarantee confidentiality to the youth.
The BJS is also designing paper and pencil interviews (PAPI) and other computer assisted interview (CAI) methods to be used with parolees and prisoners soon to be released from jail. Field tests of up to 30 jails and 20 state parole offices are expected to take place in mid-200s.
Through the surveys, the BJS will produce an annual report of the results. It will also identify the 3 prisons with the highest number of sexual assaults and the 3 with the lowest. Officials from those prisons will then be asked to meet with the National Prison Rape Reduction Commission, an entity established by the PREA to conduct research and develop guidelines.
Test results of audio-CASI, PAPI, and CAI surveys will be available in June 2006. The BJS expects the audio-CASI, PAPI, and CAI surveys of current and former prisoners to be ready for national data collection by the end of 2006.
In addition to the self-reporting surveys, the BJS will also collect institutional records annually. In 2004, the BJS planned to survey all federal and state prisons, juvenile state prisons, and a representative sample of jails and privately or locally operated juvenile prisons. Through collection of institutional data, the BJS hopes to determine, by gender, the number of prisoner-on-prisoner and staff-on-prisoner sexual assaults; how the incidents are recorded; what information is recorded; where the assaults occur; and what additional information is available.
The Bureau of Justice Assistance has also begun the task federal grant money to improve education and training programs reducing prison rapes. At least three states--Michigan, Rhode Pennsylvania--received funds in 2004.
The Michigan Department of Corrections (DOC) plans to use its $1 million grant to include information about vulnerable prisoners and sexual predators in its training curriculum for medical and mental health personnel and investigators. The Rhode Island DOC is using its half a million dollars to address a wide range of issues, including identifying potential predators and victims, improving investigative efforts, and training staff. The Pennsylvania DOC says it will match its nearly $600,000 grant with another $605,746 and plans to work with Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape to develop education and training curriculum and informational brochures," said Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard. A major problem not addressed by the BJS though is the fact that the FBI does not include sexual assaults that occur in detention facilities in its crime statistics.
Additional sources: Corrections.com, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections press release
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