State Model: Pitkin County Jail

Dec 12, 2013

Pitkin County Jail
Credit Pitkin County

It is part of cultural lore that if you go to prison you will be raped.  Literature, television and movies have reinforced this belief and a Department of Justice study released last year found that about four percent of inmates were raped during a 12 month period.  That’s nearly 62-thousand sexual assaults just in the prison system.  

Rape is most prevalent in large institutions though small jails and holding facilities are not immune.  There are new Federal laws in place to reduce sexual assaults in prison.  And, the Pitkin County jail is now working on a set of policies and procedures that will serve as a model for rural jails across Colorado.  APR’s Roger Adams explains.

The last time there was an incident in the Pitkin County jail that could be described as a sexual assault was in the 1980’s.  It is an enviable record for a jail and now jail administrator Don Bird has been asked to let his facility be used as a model.

“The things we’re involved in doing are improving our jail polices and procedures as they relate to sexual abuse prevention, detection and response.”

The jail is in essence writing a kind of operations manual that small jails around the state will use to become compliant with the new Federal regulations.  One change is that prison and jail officials must educate their inmates about sexual assault prevention.  Another regulation adds sexual assault screening when someone is arrested.

Inmates with sexual assaults in their past will be held according to additional procedures. For potential predators the solution is isolation.

“Everybody that’s arrested comes in here and gets booked we’re going to have to screen them at that time for likelihood of being a victim, being victimized by someone while they are incarcerated or the likelihood of being a predator, in other words, victimizing somebody else while they’re in here.”

The booking process already includes a series of background checks of medical, police and other records.  Now inmates with sexual assaults in their past will be held according to additional procedures. For potential predators the solution is isolation.

“If somebody comes in and they have an assaultive history or a history in another facility of either assaulting officers or other inmates we would classify that person as a maximum security inmate and we would restrict their movement in the jail.”

Its more complicated for the jail when an inmate is a potential victim.  If someone has been a victim in the past they can’t just be separated from the general population.

“We would have to take some steps to protect the individual without penalizing them unduly.”

In other words, these inmates cannot be denied things like exercise or educational classes just because they could be victimized.  

Victims of sexual assault while incarcerated often face additional problems beyond the fact they are in jail.  Once released many have more difficulty readjusting to life outside, they are more likely to reoffend and wind up back in prison.  The new rules designed to prevent sexual abuse in jail are all part of the Prison Rape Elimination Act known as PREA.

“Its victim-centered so that’s a new wrinkle in corrections and a new wrinkle in the law. The whole law is geared toward the victim.”

Prison rape is considered a human rights issue, that people who are serving time should be kept healthy and safe and that their security is the job of the institution.  And for many small jails it means an extensive process of training and policy changes.  The model being produced here in Pitkin County’s jail will make that process easier for other facilities.  Bird and his staff are working with Christine Kregg from Just Detention, a non-profit contracted by the Federal Bureau of Justice assistance.

“We are here as part of a cooperative agreement, a grant, with the Pitkin County jail, to work on comprehensively addressing sexual abuse in specifically small rural jails.”

All incarceration facilities must comply with PREA as the country tries to eliminate, or at least reduce, the more than sixty thousand rapes per year behind bars.  It was this epidemic of abuse which led to the creation of Just Detention in 1980 in San Francisco as a grassroots effort.  It culminated in the 2003 passage of the rape elimination act.  Now the final steps are to implement the new regulations.  Kregg says the work is a kind of overhaul of the prison system.  It covers multiple bases.

“How to detect and respond to sexual abuse, what are the specific laws, not just PREA, but state criminal laws that relate, mandatory reporting.  We talk about how do you communicate effectively with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender inmates who are disproportionately for sexual abuse in custody.”

Kregg has worked extensively training the jail staff here and with jailer Don Bird on writing the procedure manual.  They are almost done after a year of working.  Under terms of the Prison Rape Elimination Act a commission of auditors has been formed.  Once jails around Colorado have trained with the procedures being created here the auditors will begin making regular visits to ensure compliance in the future. > 

More Information:

American Jail Association - PREA Training

Just Detention International

Prison Rape Elimination Act (2003)

Colorado Department of Corrections