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

February 23, 2010 12:00 am

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


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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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