Could Captain Kirk Meet PREA Standards?

The Kobayashi Maru is a training exercise in the fictional Star Trek universe designed to test the character of Starfleet Academy cadets in a no-win scenario.

For the uninitiated, the goal of the Kobayashi Maru is to rescue a civilian ship (of the same name) in a simulated battle with the Klingons. The disabled ship is located in the Klingon Neutral Zone. A Starfleet ship entering the zone would cause an interstellar incident.

The cadet crew must choose between rescuing the Kobayashi Maru crew – endangering their own lives – or leave the Kobayashi Maru to certain destruction. If the cadet chooses to attempt rescue, the simulation is designed to guarantee that the cadet's ship is destroyed with the loss of all crew members.

As corrections professionals, we are required to comply with a federal law in which there is no moral or ethical dilemma. Every human being that steps inside the confines of a correctional facility should be protected by sexual predators. How we achieve compliance with that law in county jails when housing is limited, staff resources are strained, and budgets are tight.

The Prison Rape Elimination Act was signed into law in 2003 by President George W. Bush. In 2012, President Obama’s Department of Justice revised regulations to prevent prison rape, directing all agencies with Federal confinement facilities to work with the Attorney General to create rules or procedures setting standards to prevent, detect, and respond to sexual abuse in confinement facilities.

According to the American Action Forum, the regulations cost $6.9 billion and the paperwork burden has been projected to add 148,455 labor hour. These costs are passed down to the states. "Despite an admirable goal, this 'landmark rule' imposes a costly, complicated regulatory framework on states currently battling recurring budget deficits, offers little assurance of success, and fails to explain this new burden to the states as required by the Unfunded Mandate Reform Act," the AAF analysis states.

“PREA is an unfunded mandate, so it’s a very difficult provision to put in place,” said Karen Dalton of the Sheriff’s Custody Services Division at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

There are 48 standards within PREA, which includes barring cross-gender strip searches and a method for reporting abuse to an outside, independent entity. It further requires a number of administrative changes to the booking process and rethinking the way that inmates are housed, Dalton said.

To really look at the issue of PREA compliance, we have to realize that many of the standards are carryover requirements from areas that we in corrections have dealt with before. From sexual harassment, to the housing of juveniles, to dealing with the massive growth in our mental health population.

Policies from this 2003 federal law required facilities to have a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment, which is perfectly acceptable, but coming 40 years after Title VII seems like they are a bit late to the prom.

Where it starts get tricky for jails is juveniles. The standards require that they be out of sight and sound from all other adult offenders. I have been in many jails that this is not just difficult, but downright impossible. Number of cells, and physical layout place these facilities in violation from the moment a juvenile enters their doors.

Things begin to get even more difficult as we look at the intake and screening per the standards. Every inmate will be screened within 72 hours of being booked in, and reviewed for the potential of being a potential victim or predator. The inmates must also be reassessed after 30 days to look for changes in their status. The areas reviewed are extensive and work very well in a prison setting where the intake and screening process takes a few weeks and the large classification departments are trained look at all of theses areas, additionally prison inmates are assigned to corrections counselors that review their caseloads every 30 to 60 days. But the high turnover of inmates and shorthanded staffs make the initial screening difficult, and I cannot imagine how they are getting the 30 day follow-up reviews completed.

Once these inmates have been evaluated, they must be housed appropriately within the facility, and victims or potential victims cannot be housed with abusers. Having spent time working on the housing for a 500 bed jail, and 900 bed prison, I can tell you that the decisions of where to house inmates is difficult at best, even without these additional concerns.

This year, 19 states have fully adopted the standards and 34 have demonstrated they are working towards full compliance. Two states remain steadfast against PREA as a federal law: Utah and Arkansas. Each state has instituted many of the recommendations set forth by PREA. However, both states have forfeited grant money from the federal government because of PREA’s prison audit structure is overly costly and burdensome for the state. PREA costs state and local facilities approximately $467 million per year.

No one wants sexual misconduct within their jail or prison. It is hurtful, dangerous, and potentially deadly. Every human being that steps inside the confines of a correctional facility should feel safe. That is the job we, as corrections professionals, took upon our shoulders. But the guidelines set out by this federal law feel more like a Kobayashi Maru than an effective way to manage inmates.

Greg Piper is a 13-year corrections veteran, having worked with the Kansas Department of Corrections and the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Greg is currently the Senior Training and Implementation Leader for GUARDIAN RFID.