The PREA Problem

by Fatima Malika Shabazz

From PHN Issue 37, Summer 2018

Content warning: this article discusses traumatic experiences, including sexual assault.

I can safely say that at least six out of every 10 times I pick up an LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning and intersex community) newsletter or magazine, there is a person in prison somewhere in the country who is being victimized by prison or jail staff from weaponized PREA standards. If you are unaware of what the acronym stands for, it means Prison Rape Elimination Act. PREA was written to provide a resource (anonymous or otherwise) for people confined in America’s gulags (prisons) and mini gulags (jails) to report rapes and sexual abuses committed by both inmates and staff. However, this policy is often used as a hammer against the very people it was written to protect, while at the same time serving to shield the violators of its policies.  

In the California prison system, the PREA policies are weaponized by staunchly rooting them in the “blame the victim” principle. This is used with specially targeted emphasis on members of the LBGTQI community — transgender people specifically. Currently, I am housed in a facility whose policy is to put the victims cited in a PREA complaint in segregation once a complaint is made, ostensibly to protect the victim.

Ironically, one of the drawbacks of PREA being anonymous is that anyone can pick up the phone or drop a kite to make a PREA complaint, knowing the claim will have you removed from the yard. It’s a double-edged sword, because anonymity is essential to an incarcerated person’s comfort level when it comes to reporting rapes or sexual abuse. When I was raped in prison as a teen (many moons ago), PREA did not exist. My complaint to the staff got me first ignored, then repeatedly molested, by staff. In the end, to protect myself, I ramped up my level of violence and inflicted that violence upon anyone in my path. The problem is those actions (for a time) became normalized behavior. 

The larger problem with the segregation policy is that not only is the victim segregated, but so is the accused, and once in segregation, the accused can alert everyone there that you are the one who accused him or her — thus placing your safety in jeopardy once you are released back to the yard you came from or to another yard at the prison.

When staff is involved, PREA investigators (other in-house staff members) take the position that the victim must be mistaken, because facility staff are trained in these matters, so the victim must have misunderstood what took place in the “alleged encounter.” The PREA investigator usually meets with the victim with a pre-written statement for the victim to sign off on. I know this to be true, because before the facility started putting victims in segregation, I filed a staff complaint and PREA violation against a staff member who (at the behest of the then female yard sergeant) strip-searched me to ascertain whether my breasts are real. 

The larger issue concerning staff complaints is that although the inmate is confined in administrative segregation, the accused staff member is never removed from inmate contact, leaving them to continue violating PREA policy willfully. Policies like this where no real checks and balances exist make PREA counterintuitive, to some degree. PREA is also the designated go-to when it comes to policy that ideally should manage how incarcerated people (transgender people specifically) are treated, including how we should be addressed as well as provisions to promote modesty in restrooms, shower usage and spaces to change clothing. Despite these policies being in place in writing, the administration consistently shirks its duty in this regard.

The modesty curtains at this prison are still basically see-through and only come into compliance with PREA standards with regard to this being a “men’s” prison, not taking into account transgender women who either through hormones or surgical intervention have pronounced physical features (like breasts). It took the better part of two years to get modesty panels, which were inadequate, now curtains, also inadequate, and those exist as a result of a quick fix to appease the recent PREA auditors.

Until PREA officials themselves step in and impose strict sanctions for violations of their policies, prison administrations will continue to weaponize the PREA policies, and victims of sexual abuse will continue to go unheard — and continue to suffer from anxiety, depression and suicidal tendencies. I encourage all of you reading this to not shirk your duty, and to understand that sacrifice is often necessary in efforts to achieve proper care and treatment, not to mention well-earned justice.

If you wear the cloak of leadership, make your leadership account for something strong and positive. Know you are not alone, so reach out for support, and you will find it.

In forever Solidarity,
Fatima Malika Shabazz

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