Governors: Act Now To Protect Youths in Prisons and Jails

Liz Ryan

Liz Ryan

As the May 15 deadline approaches for states to comply with the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), governors should ignore the recent public rant by Texas' Rick Perry.

In a March 28 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, Gov. Perry (R-TX) declared that Texas would not comply with PREA—a law that, ironically, was signed into law by another Texan, President George W. Bush. Implementing PREA, especially its Youthful Inmate Standard, would go a long way towards protecting children from the dangers they face when confined to adult jails and prisons.

The federal government's recent guidance on implementing the law, which has been informed by corrections and detention practitioners throughout the country, leaves little room for argument. “As a matter of policy, the Department supports strong limitations on the confinement of adults with juveniles,” said the Department of Justice (DOJ) said on issues its guidelines for implementing PREA.

The regulations establish a “Youthful Inmate Standard” that would impact the 100,000 children who are placed in adult jails and prisons every year.

Research shows that youth in adult jails and prisons, are at the greatest risk of sexual victimization.

According to the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, “more than any other group of incarcerated persons, youth incarcerated with adults are probably at the highest risk for sexual abuse.”

DOJ’s guidance, issued by the PREA Resource Center, is based on decades of experience by practitioners, who say it is difficult to keep youth safe from sexual assault in adult jails and prisons.

Any measure taken to accommodate youth in adult facilities creates a no-win situation for jail and prison officials.

Unless they are separated from adults, young people will be placed in a situation that can result in serious physical and emotional harm. But removing them from adult contact while still in an adult prison can be equally harmful: detained youth are often placed in isolation for long periods of time.

This isolation equates to solitary confinement, which can lead to depression, exacerbate already existing mental health issues, and put youth at risk of suicide.

To more effectively keep youth safe, DOJ’s guidelines recommend that states and counties place youth who pose a risk to public safety into juvenile detention or correctional facilities where they are more likely to receive developmentally appropriate services, educational programming and support by trained staff.

“Keeping youthful inmates out of adult facilities makes operational sense,” says the DOJ, adding that “housing youthful inmates in juvenile facilities can be achieved without disruption.”

Instead of Perry, governors should listen to the words of another Texan.

Linda Bruntmeyer of Amarillo, whose teenage son Rodney Hulin was repeatedly raped in an adult prison and committed suicide as a result, testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee that her son's death “could have been prevented.”

“My son hanged himself in his cell,” she told the committee in 2002. “He was seventeen and afraid, and ashamed and hopeless. He laid in a coma for the next four months before he died. Sadly, I know that Rodney is not alone…

“We know what happened to Rodney could have been prevented…Rodney tried to ask for help, and I tried too. But nothing was done…Rape in prison should no longer be tolerated.”

With so many reasons to take this concrete action to help young people, governors in every state should fully protect children behind bars.

To get started in removing youth from adult facilities, governors can access federal technical assistance, experts and funding from the National Center for Youth in Custody, the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) Resource Center, the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) and the Office of Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP).

Tolerating prison rape is simply unacceptable. The rantings of one governor who refuses to protect children in the justice system should not influence policymakers.

Some jurisdictions have already banned the detention or incarceration of children in adult jails and prisons. It can and should be done.

Governors have an obligation to protect children throughout the justice system who are faced daily with sexual assault. The tragedy of Rodney Hulin should never be repeated.

EDITORS NOTE: For another look at how states are addressing the challenge of PREA compliance, please see TCR's April 10, 2014 story, “How Red Tape Snarls Prison Rape Act.”

Liz Ryan is a campaign strategist, youth justice policy expert and civil and human rights advocate. Follow Liz on twitter @LizRyanYJ

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