U.S. House Of Representatives Holds Hearing On Sexual Violence In Youth Detention Facilities

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Claire O’Brien, (202) 675-2312; media@dcaclu.org

U.S. House Of Representatives Holds Hearing On Sexual Violence In Youth Detention Facilities

Prison Abuse Remedies Act Would Give Victims Access To Justice, Says ACLU

WASHINGTON -
The
House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security will hold
a hearing today on preventing sexual assault in adult and juvenile
detention facilities. The hearing comes on the heels of a report
released last month by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice
Statistics (BJS), which revealed shockingly high rates of sexual abuse
among youths in custody.
 
The
American Civil Liberties Union urges members of Congress to support
H.R. 4335, the Prison Abuse Remedies Act of 2009 (PARA), which removes
barriers to justice for victims of sexual and other abuses in prison,
jail and juvenile detention put in place by the Prison Litigation
Reform Act (PLRA). The ACLU also calls on the Justice Department to
finalize the standards recommended in June 2009 by a national
bipartisan commission authorized by the Prison Rape Elimination Act
(PREA) to end sexual abuse behind bars.
 
“For
too long, the Prison Litigation Reform Act has stood in the way of
justice for victims of sexual abuse in detention,” said Laura Murphy,
Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “By undermining the
power of federal courts to hold prisons, jails and juvenile detention
centers responsible for abuse, this bill has allowed abuse to go
unchecked. Nothing could be more important to ensuring the safety of
children behind bars than restoring their constitutional right to bring
their abusers to justice in court. The Prison Abuse Remedies Act is the
way to do it.”  
 
The
BJS report found that an estimated 12 percent of youths in detention
reported being sexually abused one or more times within the past year,
with the majority of those assaults committed by a facility staff
member. Under PLRA, victims of such abuse are effectively prevented
from seeking justice and protection from the federal courts. Although
the PLRA was originally intended to reduce frivolous lawsuits in
federal court, certain provisions of the law are instead used to deny
justice to victims of rape, assault, religious rights violations and
other serious abuses. PARA would protect detained juveniles by
exempting children under the age of 18 from the nearly insurmountable
legal and procedural hurdles created by the PLRA.
 
“Youth
in prison are particularly vulnerable because the Prison Litigation
Reform Act virtually immunizes prison officials from accountability to
the Constitution and federal law,” said Amy Fettig, staff attorney with
the ACLU National Prison Project. “Many youth either do not know of or
do not understand the grievance systems in their facilities, and many
more fear retaliation for filing grievances. As a result, the PLRA
effectively bars most incarcerated youths and their parents from being
able to address unlawful conditions of confinement. Congress needs to
pass the Prison Abuse Remedies Act to protect incarcerated kids from
otherwise unchecked abuse.” 
 
The
ACLU has long opposed several provisions of the PLRA, including
requiring prisoners to exhaust the internal complaint process of their
correctional institution before filing a lawsuit, because prison
officials, who are usually the defendants in prisoner suits, have every
incentive to ensure that these processes are nearly impossible to
navigate. As a result, many grievance systems in correctional
facilities have become a game of “gotcha,” with impossibly short
deadlines and no exceptions for prisoners who are minors, ill,
hospitalized, traumatized or incapacitated.
 
The
PLRA also bars monetary damages for mental or emotional distress in the
absence of physical injury. As a result, even intentional violations of
the right to freedom of religion, free speech and due process go
uncompensated and violators go unpunished because the injury involved
was not “physical.” Some courts have even interpreted PLRA to bar
claims of serious sexual abuse simply because no “physical injury” was
alleged by the prisoner. By exempting children under the age of 18 from
the PLRA, PARA will allow youthful offenders to pursue justice for
abuse they may suffer while incarcerated.
 
In
addition to the need for Congress to pass the PARA, the Justice
Department must finalize the standards recommended in June 2009 by the
national bipartisan commission authorized by the PREA and aimed at
ending sexual abuse behind bars. The PREA Commission standards
represent the first national effort to eradicate the epidemic of rape
and sexual violence behind bars in this country. The standards
establish that sexual abuse is not an inevitable aspect of
incarceration, but a preventable problem that can be addressed through
sound policies, staff training, adequate housing, serious
investigation, prisoner education and appropriate medical and mental
health care. The PREA Commission has also recognized that reforming
PLRA plays a key role in eliminating sexual abuse in U.S. prisons,
jails and youth detention centers.
 
“It’s
crucial that Congress pass the Prison Abuse Remedies Act and that the
Department of Justice finalize the PREA Commission standards as quickly
as possible,” said Jennifer Bellamy, ACLU Legislative Counsel. “Our
country now incarcerates approximately 2.3 million Americans in
increasingly abusive conditions of confinement. Our prisoners,
especially incarcerated youth, cannot continue to be further shackled
when it comes to their legal rights.” 
 
More information on PLRA is available at:
 
The Bureau of Justice Statistics report is available at:
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The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) conserves America's original civic values working in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in the United States by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

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