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PREA — Has it Gone Too Far?
By Dr. Susan Jones
Published: 03/14/2016

Jail cells Previously published in: The Correctional Trainer, Winter 2015 and the Correctional Oasis, February 2016. Reprinted with author’s permission.

Editor’s note: Yes, the Officer described here should have handled the situation differently from the start, by disclosing to her supervisor what happened regarding her computer security issue and the offender’s blackmail. Perhaps due to fear of negative consequences for her oversight, she did not, and ended up paying dearly for it. This however does not detract from the main point of this article about offenders possibly using PREA to sexually exploit vulnerable staff.

The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) of 2003 was passed, in part, to raise awareness of the public to the plight of inmates who may be sexually abused in prisons and jails. The goals of PREA are hard to criticize. Increasing the sexual safety of inmates is an important foundation to managing a constitutionally sound facility. However, the effect of this type of safe environment also increases the safety of the correctional employees and ultimately may positively impact the safety of the general public, when inmates are released. Even though there may have been occasions when some people may have implied that inmates deserve to be raped, especially if they committed a sex crime, the law and a civilized society demand a different approach to imprisonment.

The PREA legislation also mandates an audit process that applies to all prison, jails, community corrections centers, juvenile facilities and lock ups. The emphasis of the audits is to ensure increased sexual safety and ensure mechanisms are in place to report abuse or harassment. This federal act is built upon the premise that sexual behavior be-tween inmates and staff is criminal, but it depends upon the individual jurisdictions to pass law that specifically criminalizes this behavior.

By the time PREA was passed, most jurisdictions in this country had some type of law that criminalized sexual behavior between correctional employees and inmates. Most of these laws included language describing inmates as being incapable of providing consent. In other words, absent physical coercion, the staff member involved in a sexual act with an inmate is always the perpetrator. Again, the logic behind the law is hard to criticize. After all, a correction’s employee has the freedom to leave the environment. They have the keys, the backing of the government, and they have the power.

This description of the power dynamic is very textbook and simple to follow. The reality of the situation, however, is that the power dynamic inside correctional institutions is not always this clear. Power comes in many forms. In a correctional institution power can be gained by inmates in a variety of ways.

If a staff member breaks a rule, and the inmate knows it and can prove it, that inmate may have gained some power when dealing with this staff member. When laws were created that clearly delineated the perpetrator in sexual incidents those laws gave inmates a different form of power. These laws may have given power to inmates to rape our correctional staff and be shielded from any consequences.

A correctional staff member may find themselves in a situation where they could be sexually assaulted by an inmate and because of the threat of being labeled the perpetrator; they may choose to remain silent. This decision may be based upon the fact that they have made a mistake. Perhaps they delivered contraband to an inmate or knowingly allowed illegal activities to occur. Perhaps their transgression was much less serious, such as talking about their personal life in an area where inmates can listen. Even this type of mistake can be used by an inmate to mount a claim that the staff member was involved in a relationship with the inmate – hence, the staff member is the perpetrator.

The power dynamic is emphasized by the news coverage from the recent New York escape. An article by NBC News, on July 29, 2015 stated: “In May, she (Mitchell) said, Matt (inmate who later escaped) asked her to perform oral sex and she did, out of fear....” The facts are hard to get to in such a highly publicized event, but just for a moment I urge each of you to consider this statement. If this type of statement were made in the community, Mitchell would have been treated as if she were a sexual assault victim.

I know that many corrections people reading this will immediately dismiss this statement and the idea that a correctional employee may not report a sexual assault by an inmate, but I challenge you to consider this possibility. Has the PREA legislation given inmates a shield to protect them from being held accountable for a sexual assault? I know the first time I considered this I immediately dismissed it. How could any correctional professional not report an attack, no matter what the circumstances? I want to share one such story. Obviously the names have been changed and the descriptions of the particular facility has been concealed, but the essence of the story is very real.

Officer Smith was hired to work in the maintenance department in a very large facility. She was the first female maintenance worker in that particular shop, so she knew she would have to prove herself. Her training and orientation phase went well and when she reported to her post everyone seemed to welcome her. She hit the ground running because she was assigned to the tool crib and there was an audit scheduled very soon. When she got her tool crib in order, she began to assist other staff with their areas. She seemed to be such a part of the team and the team seemed to welcome her so totally, that she thought she found the perfect fit for a career. The maintenance shop did better in this audit than ever before, and she was given a lot of the credit. This was such a great start to getting into her new job, and she continued to try to help and excel.

Officer Smith can’t really describe when things changed, but they did change. At first, she would offer help to her co-workers, but they would not accept it. As time went on, she was no longer included in the small talk that occurred at the beginning of the shift and at noon. Now these things may not seem that big of a deal, but it was a change from her first few weeks on the job. Eventually, she was only spoken to by staff when they needed her to check out a tool. Officer Smith began to feel like she worked in a cage all day and was only a cog in a machine.

By this time, most corrections people can predict what happened next, and you are right.

An inmate maintenance worker became the person that she talked to at work. That particular inmate was assigned to her tool crib so they had to work together to get the job done. Looking back, Officer Smith now realizes that she talked too much about her family and personal life. This particular inmate began to know information about her that she should have kept private. What she didn’t tell him, he figured out by listening to her on the phone or by looking at her computer screen when she was distracted.

The computer security rules required that she use a password for all computer programs, but there were many programs, so she kept a list of her passwords in the top drawer of her desk. Her inmate clerk saw her open that drawer many times throughout the day, and probably could have figured out what she was doing. To make matters worse, the computer was in the middle of the crib, so throughout the day when she had to walk 15 feet to the check-out location, she would rarely log off from her computer.

Officer Smith was not on the list to get highly sensitive emails, but the information she did regularly receive was enough. Her inmate clerk found specific information on her computer that led to a prison gang member assaulting a newly arrived inmate. Eventually, her clerk let her know that she was responsible for “giving” him the information that led to the assault. Of course, he didn’t want to report this to her boss, as long as she would share food with him. The inmate clerk knew that she was a great cook by watching her unpack and eat her lunch every day. He just wanted her to bring enough for him each day. Officer Smith thought that this was a small price to pay for his silence.

This arrangement continued for many months. Now Officer Smith was feeling much more comfortable that her clerk would not ask for anything else, or report her actions. Probably during this time she also became less guarded about her personal life again. As summer hit, the other staff members spent less time in the shop and worked on many big projects that had been put on hold until the summer weather. That meant that Officer Smith and her clerk were in the shop, alone, for long periods of time.

She will never forget the day it happened. She was walking out of the staff restroom when she felt pressure on the door. When she realized it was the inmate, it was too late. He pushed his way in and shut and locked the door. There was no talking her way out of this situation. The inmate was focused and determined to rape her. The assault was quick. The whole incident probably lasted less than 5 minutes.

When he was done, he told her to keep her mouth shut, because if she told anyone he would claim that they had a relationship. He reminded her that he had enough information to make someone believe that story. He reminded her that he would be seen as the victim. He left the restroom and went back to work. She locked the restroom door and reached for her radio, but she never pushed the button.

In the minutes she stayed in the restroom, she could hear the inmate working in the tool crib. He wasn’t at all worried that she would call for help. He was very confident that he could rape her and face no consequences. She knew that he was right. She didn’t think anyone would believe her, so she went back to work. She worked beside this inmate for the next two hours and then closed up the tool crib, just like it was a normal day.

Officer Smith described how she walked by the shift commander, her captain, and the warden when she left the facility. She didn’t dare say a word to any of them. She left the facility and drove over one hundred miles to an emergency room where she would not run into anyone she knew. She went through the steps of getting assessed for STDs, but did not allow a rape exam to be conducted.

Officer Smith called in sick for the next three days. She had to figure out what to do. Finally, she applied for a transfer position at a state office in a different city. This position was a significant demotion, but even with this reduction in pay, she felt she had no other choices. She worked for the department for only a few more months, and then moved to another state.

When Officer Smith talks about this incident, she brings up the training that she had for PREA. She remembers being told that the staff member is always the perpetrator and the inmate is always the victim.

I am not sharing this story in an effort to dismiss the importance of PREA. I am sharing this in an effort to try to reduce the likelihood that this type of unreported assault could happen in your agency.

Do you think Officer Smith would have been believed? Or would she have become the perpetrator? Did PREA go too far, and can it now shield inmates from criminal acts? Could this happen in your jurisdiction? Should this story influence the way PREA training is delivered?

Dr. Susan Jones retired from a warden’s position within the Colorado Department of Corrections. She worked in a variety of corrections positions in Colorado for 31 years, including: community corrections, correctional officer, sergeant, lieutenant, manager, associate warden and warden. Dr. Jones research interests have focused on the issues that correctional employees face on a daily basis. Visit Dr. Jones's Facebook page "A Glimpse Behind the Fence".


  1. hamiltonlindley on 02/25/2020:

    He studies. He learns. He listens. He remains aware of what others are saying, writing and thinking. Hamilton Lindley is encouraging. He builds momentum. He invests in others and build up the people around them. Hamilton Lindley is purpose driven. Mission-minded. It guides his thoughts and keeps his team on task. Hamilton’s word is his bond. He could function, and be trusted, in a handshake world. You can trust Hamilton Lindley emphatically. He is not negative-minded or hyper-critical.

  2. MrZ on 05/06/2016:

    excellent work Dr Jones. I liked your facebook page and will follow you diligently. officer's smith's dilemma is clear. who can she trust to listen to her story without judgement and be available to support her? maybe a chaplain. i am left with this dilemma and looking who in my life is living life like i am not available for him/her.

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