Standing By as Prisoners Are Raped

  • Lovisa Stannow
  • June 20, 2018
  • New York Times

It is well known among prison reformers that the East Mississippi Correctional Facility, a private prison, is a cesspool of violence and sexual abuse. The horrific conditions there have long been out in the open, thanks in large part to a class-action lawsuit brought in 2013 on behalf of the prisoners, on which a judge will rule any day now.

In April, the prison reached a new level of notoriety after a video was released of an inmate being beaten unconscious by other prisoners. The video runs nearly 30 minutes before corrections officers casually enter the frame — negligence made more appalling by the fact that an officer had filmed the attack.

Given the prison’s track record, it would seem like a foregone conclusion that an audit of its efforts to stop rape among prisoners as well as that perpetrated by staff members would turn up scores of problems.

It didn’t.

In 2015, an auditor assessed whether the facility complied with the Prison Rape Elimination Act’s standards — a set of strong federal regulations aimed at ensuring safe ways to report abuse behind bars and improving medical and mental health care in prisons, among other provisions. The picture he painted was at odds with the reality there.

The auditor, a former corrections official himself, declared that the prison “is well managed and staff well trained in their assignments” and that it is “a safe place to serve time.” At an exit meeting with prison management, he praised staff on a job well done, writing that he had “congratulated the facility staff about the progress made in compliance with the P.R.E.A. standards.”

The contrast between that sham audit report and what I have heard from prisoners could not be more dramatic.

One of the prisoners, a man I’ll call Thomas, has been sexually assaulted numerous times by other prisoners. After one especially brutal attack, he tried to file a report with a prison officer.

“This is prison,” the officer responded. “Stop being gay.”

Anyone paying attention knows that the East Mississippi Correctional Facility is a house of horrors. So what accounts for the profound differences between the facility described in the audit report and the one depicted in the recent video and in accounts from prisoners like Thomas?

The answer cannot be that the auditor happened to visit the facility on two unusually calm days in May 2015, or that he interviewed only inmates who were somehow oblivious to the chaos around them. Even if the plumbing was working on those days and the floors were not soaked with inmates’ blood, the auditor’s job is to examine compliance over the previous 12 months.

Press reports, the federal lawsuit and inmate letters all show that violence and sexual abuse persisted during that time.

A closer look at prior reports by that auditor paints a troubling picture. A year earlier, he had conducted an audit of Walnut Grove Correctional Facility, a Mississippi prison so infamous it recently closed.

Walnut Grove was a private prison run by the Management and Training Corporation, just like the East Mississippi Correctional Facility. The auditor’s report on Walnut Grove mirrored his report on E.M.C.F., declaring it to be “well managed and staff well trained in their assignments” and “a safe place to serve time.”

And as he had done at the East Mississippi prison, the auditor conducted an exit interview where he “congratulated the facility staff on their progress made in compliance with the PREA standards.” This same language is repeated in reports he made in audits of prisons in New MexicoOhio, and Texas. These reports are the definition of rubber stamp audits and, as such, antithetical to, and clearly subverting, the intent of the Prison Rape Elimination Act audit process.

He’s not the only auditor who conducts such problematic reviews. An analysis by my organization has found that scores of dangerous prisons are passing their audits with flying colors. These sloppy assessments are a missed opportunity for much needed corrections oversight. Worse, they give cover to cynical officials looking to weasel their way out of accountability for devastating sexual violence.

In fact, the spokesman for Management and Training Corporation has held up the E.M.C.F. audit report as proof that the facility is well run. The prison even has a plaque declaring that it is compliant with the act, which must seem bitterly ironic to the hundreds of men condemned to live there.

The Justice Department is not blind to the serious flaws of these audits. To their credit, officials there released strong audit guidelines last year. But that isn’t enough. The pool of auditors, who have been certified by the Justice Department, is dominated by former corrections officials who are either unable or unwilling to point out deadly practices that are right under their noses.

Equally troubling is the lack of transparency around auditor decertification. It seems that the man who audited the East Mississippi prison had been the go-to auditor of the Management and Training Corporation. He is no longer certified, but the reason why is anyone’s guess. And his pitiful audits still stand as valid.

Fortunately, Congress has an opportunity right now to rectify the problem. On May 22, the House approved the First Step Act, a criminal justice reform bill that would establish stronger guidelines for conducting an audit and harsher — and more transparent — sanctions for auditors who flout them.

The First Step Act still has to be approved by the Senate, and while it has strong bipartisan support, nothing is guaranteed in today’s political climate.

But one thing is certain: if the audits are allowed to fail, the Prison Rape Elimination Act will fail, and the shameful scourge of prisoner rape will continue.

Originally posted here