CIVIC CENTER — The Board of Correction passed new rules Tuesday to address sexual violence in New York City jails after nearly two years of back-and-forth with elected officials and advocates on the issue.
The rules — outlining attempts at prevention as well as how the Department of Correction and the city's Health + Hospitals Correctional Health Services will respond to rape in jails — are intended to bring the city's jails in line with national standards set by the Department of Justice in 2003 under the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA).
Public Advocate Letitia James petitioned the board, which has oversight over the city's Department of Correction, about PREA in 2015, prompting the board to devise a set of rules that were later revised after a public hearing and input from City Council members and advocacy organizations.
The board unanimously voted to approve them Tuesday, and they will take effect on Jan. 2, 2017, though their various components — from video surveillance to new training to regulations on how investigations into rape allegations are conducted — will be implemented on a varied timeline, spanning from Jan. 5, 2017 to Dec. 31, 2021.
Under the new rules:
► A PREA coordinator for the Department of Correction as a whole, and individual PREA compliance managers for each of the city's jail facilities endowed by the department "with sufficient time and authority to coordinate compliance efforts."
► A staffing plan in place by Jan. 31, 2018, with semi-annual progress reports to the board in the lead-up to that deadline.
► A one-year video surveillance pilot program for cars used to transport inmates, to be instituted by July 31, 2017 and an evaluation of the program by Sept. 1, 2018.
► Unannounced inspections by supervisors.
► A host of new standards as to how the department determines where to house transgender or intersex inmates.
► New training on how to search transgender and intersex inmates "in a professional and respectful manner, and in the least intrusive manner possible consistent with security needs."
► The availability of victim advocates if requested by inmates who reported a rape or sexual assault.
► Rape crisis intervention and counseling services to be designed, operated and administered by the Health + Hospitals Correctional Health Services within the same facility where a victimized inmate is housed.
► The completion by the department of all investigations into sexual violence within 90 days of reported allegations.
Some of the things that will be prohibited are:
► Housing transgender or intersex inmates based on their genitalia.
► Direct contact between inmates who are under 18 and inmates who are over 18 in sleeping, bathing and common areas — and such contact will only be allowed outside of the housing units with "direct staff supervision."
“Our clients report a pervasive risk of sexual abuse in DOC custody yet their allegations have been dismissed out of hand as shown by the Board’s finding that the Department substantiated only 5 of 294 allegations of staff sexual abuse between 2013 and 2015," said Veronica Vela, Interim Supervising Attorney at the Legal Aid Society Prisoners’ Rights Project, in a statement after the new rules were passed.
"The Board’s new Rules take some important first steps to protect our clients from harm," she continued. "While much more is needed, we support the Board’s efforts and encourage the Board to monitor the DOC closely and report publicly about its findings.”