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On November 29 and 30, 2023, representatives from federal, state, local, and tribal corrections agencies, survivors of sexual abuse in custody, advocates, service providers, DOJ-certified PREA auditors, staff of the National PREA Resource Center, and our partners gathered at the Department of Justice to mark the 20th Anniversary of the Prison Rape Elimination Act. The purpose was to look back at the promise PREA presented when it was passed unanimously by Congress in 2003, recognize where we have come, and discuss the important work yet to be accomplished.

During these two days together, I was buoyed by stories about creative approaches that PREA champions are implementing to advance sexual safety. For example, Carmela Romero, Deputy Director of Administration at the Bernalillo County Youth Center, described the agency’s dance initiative for young people incarcerated in the detention center. The program helps them understand space and learn boundaries and build trust with caring professionals. She reminded us how important that trust is, so that if young people need to report something important, they have someone they feel comfortable turning to. Thomas Yellow Boy, PREA Coordinator for the Rosebud Sioux tribe, struck a similar note: “It’s all about feeling safe. If they don’t feel safe they’re not gonna talk to you.”

Additionally, Robert Green, former Secretary of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services and now Executive Director of the American Correctional Association, talked about wardens’ opportunity to create transformational moments in transactional spaces. He said wardens can define what a good day looks like in their facility, setting the tone and expectations for the facility’s culture. Leaders have weighty responsibilities and great opportunities to create change, and we want to support agency and facility leaders in that effort.

I was also moved by tales of survival shared by people who have emerged from victimization as staunch supporters and advocates for other survivors. We were honored to be joined by Dee Farmer, a prominent transgender activist and legal expert who has dedicated her professional life to promoting sexual safety and other rights of people in confinement. After being raped at knifepoint at age 19 a week after arriving in a men’s prison, Ms. Farmer brought litigation all the way to the Supreme Court without legal representation until her case reached that stage. Her case, Farmer v. Brennan, established that people who are incarcerated have a right to be protected from sexual violence and that prison officials cannot ignore a risk of serious harm like sexual abuse. Congress cited Dee’s case as one of the reasons for the passage of PREA.

And Johanna Mills, a survivor of abuse by her prison work supervisor and now a program associate and survivor outreach worker at Just Detention International, reinforced the importance of hiring carefully and providing support and oversight of all staff members: “If you have people working for you who are unwell, they are incapable of keeping me safe.”

As Karhlton Moore, Director of the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance remarked, “So many of you are working hard to get this right — make no mistake, we have to.”

We at the PREA Resource Center remain committed to advancing the cause of sexual safety every day. We paused to mark this important occasion, took in the reflections and advice of so many champions of this work, and look forward to the opportunities in the months and years ahead to bring new ideas and new energy to our common goal.

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