If you mention the words "PREA," "sexual safety" and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) population in the same sentence within a corrections setting, chances are that a lively, emotional discussion will ensue. Why is this? Shouldn't the time lapse that has occurred between the enactment of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) in 2003, as well as the onset of the second audit cycle in 2016, have given everyone sufficient time to become familiar and compliant with federal standards, and to determine the best operational practices for managing marginalized, vulnerable populations?
Many lessons learned by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PADOC) helped it develop and implement improved policies and practices that are proactive and enable staff to be sensitive to the needs of those who may be perceived as different. The LGBTQ population has a wide array of specialized needs that the department had not historically or traditionally addressed in the areas of medicine, mental health and programming needs. Even the most effectively written policies will not result in lasting change if culture and established values do not align with policy. Pennsylvania's programs and policies are intended to ensure everyone's safety, preserve the dignity of all inmates, provide a safe environment, reduce violence and enhance efforts to address trauma and rehabilitate.
Starting with the premise that approximately 95 percent of inmates will one day be released from prison, it is important to take proactive measures to connect inmates to the network of available resources in the community and prepare them for harsh realities that await them upon reentry; this is true for transgender inmates as well. Equally important is the commitment to connect with community service providers and proactively seek their advice as subject matter experts. The collaboration with community providers has also helped bridge a gap between advocacy organizations and corrections professionals. When there are questions or issues raised by community organizations, the foundation for open and honest communication has been laid, removing layers of caution or mistrust between such organizations that sometimes rise to the level of litigation.
The genesis of the reform
Members of the LGBTQ prison community are also members of communities at large. As such, the PREA standards require that confinement facilities take additional actions to protect them since they are statistically at an increased risk of sexual victimization. According to the United States Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Inmate Survey, 2011-12, transgender inmates are almost 13 times more likely to experience victimization than their heterosexual peers. (1) This information was unknown to many of the transgender community members who were present at a local/statewide support group meeting facilitated by TransCentralPA in January 2015, during which several PADOC employees attended when the department initially began exploring the concept of offering support group services to the transgender prison community.
There were many takeaways from that evening, but most impressionable was the level of interest in the PREA standards, the efforts required of facilities to be deemed compliant, and how the enactment of this law forever changes the landscape of sexual safety during incarceration. PADOC's goal was to provide the most beneficial support to the transgender community. Therefore, it began exploring the most conducive approach to achieve this while confined by the institutional structure. Through a unique partnership, a cutting-edge practice was formed which offers support and connection to local and state transgender community members through hosting a monthly support group via video conference.
Like all PREA compliant agencies, the department enforces a zero-tolerance standard. Any staff member who engages in, fails to report or knowingly condones sexual abuse or...