Schools across the U.S. close as threats pour in
from Digital First Media
Schools across the country closed Friday as threats of violence and rumors of threats came hit districts in states including Michigan, Idaho, Pennsylvania, Maine, Illinois, California, Florida, Utah, Texas, Oregon, Washington, and Oklahoma.
A number of schools were also closed in Connecticut, where the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting kicked off the wave of concern, but the threats appear most widespread in Michigan.
"The process of education has just been so disruptive that it was a unanimous decision by all superintendents" in Lapeer County to shut down, Tom English, superintendent of North Branch Area schools told the Detroit Free Press. "We're not happy about it."
One student, a 16-year-old in Jackson County, Mich., was arrested for threatening to come into school on Friday and "shoot people," The Oakland Press reports.
The story was similar in Oklahoma, where schools in Caney Valley were closed.
"They installed a doorbell, they locked all entrances into the school, and the only way after the bell had rang in the morning that you could get in was by ringing the bell and en employee letting you in," substitute teacher and mother Kami Asbury told Tulsa's Channel 8.
A school district near Boise, Idaho, canceled planned assemblies at a number of its 50 schools after receiving a rash of threats that suggested "something bad" would happen on Friday, Meridian school spokesman Eric Exline said.
In Florida, a 13-year-old student was arrested on Thursday after he allegedly posted a Facebook message threatening to "bring a gun to school tomorrow and shoot everyone," said the St. Lucie County Sheriff's office on Florida's east coast.
Not all of the anxiety was directly attributable to the attack in Connecticut that left 20 children and seven adults dead — including the attacker's mother. School officials also laid some of the blame on hysteria over what some thought was a Mayan prediction that the world would end on Friday, several news outlets reported.
An administrator in Idaho seemed best to sum up the mood in school districts across the country.
“The reason we’re canceling school is not because we think there is a credible threat but because the fear and the panic is just so palpable that we didn’t believe we could have a productive, calm day,” Coeur d’Alene Superintendent Hazel Bauman told the Spokesman-Review.
NRA calls for armed guards in schools after Sandy Hook shootings
by Ryan Teague Beckwith
WASHINGTON - The nation's largest gun rights advocacy group called today for armed guards in every U.S. school to prevent mass shootings like the one in Connecticut last week, a plan that would cost billions.
In a press conference at a hotel near the White House, National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre criticized calls for new gun control laws and blamed a federal law creating gun-free school zones for the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School and elsewhere.
"We care about our money, so we protect our banks with armed guards," he said. "American airports, office buildings, power plants, courthouses, even sports stadiums all are protected by armed security. Yet when it comes to our most beloved, innocent and vulnerable members of the American family - our children - we as a society leave them everyday utterly defenseless."
The NRA also announced a new effort led by former Rep. Asa Hutchinson, R-Ark., to develop a model school safety program that could be copied by school districts around the country.
Gun control groups were quick to criticize the proposal, arguing that local school districts already have the ability to hire security guards.
Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said his children's school in Virginia already has a relationship with local law enforcement officials and regularly discusses how to improve school security.
But he said that security guards would need serious training to effectively counter a shooter with a semi-automatic weapon.
"When you talk to law enforcement, this is clearly SWAT-style activity," he said. "The level of training required to be effective in this situation would be high, and it's not just like some hired security personnel can handle this. To respond to an attack with the weaponry that Mr. Lanza had would take a lot of training and retraining."
Police say Adam Lanza was behind the attack at Sandy Hook Elementary. Twenty children and six adults were killed there Dec. 14.
Exact figures are hard to pin down, but armed security guards can cost twice as much as unarmed school safety officers, said Larry Johnson, president-elect of the National Association of School Safety and Law Enforcement Officials.
In Grand Rapids, Mich., where Johnson heads public safety efforts for the school system, an armed security guard at a school would cost between $75,000 and $100,000 a year. With more than 67,000 elementary schools alone in the U.S., the cost would quickly reach billions of dollars.
"It could get pretty pricey per officer per year," he said.
Christopher Murphy, Connecticut's senator-elect, posted to Facebook about the NRA press conference.
"Walking out of another funeral and was handed the NRA transcript. The most revolting, tone deaf statement I've ever seen," Murphy wrote, generating hundreds of likes and a slew of comments and shares.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Ct.) said he wasn't convinced a security guard would have made a difference given the semiautomatic rifle that the Newtown shooter was using.
"I was told by a number of state police (that) they don't think they could have stopped this killer with the existing body armor and weaponry that they carry," he said.
In a press release Thursday, the heads of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association called similar recent proposals "astounding and disturbing."
"Guns have no place in our schools. Period," said NEA president Dennis Van Roekel and AFT president Randi Weingarten in a joint statement. "We must do everything we can to reduce the possibility of any gunfire in schools, and concentrate on ways to keep all guns off school property and ensure the safety of children and school employees."
Most school security officers work in larger urban school districts, more a response to the threat of gang violence and the likelihood of fights than a defense against possible mass shootings, Johnson said. Of those, most are unarmed, with the few armed guards working in the nation's largest school systems.
No questions were taken at the NRA press conference, which was interrupted twice by protesters calling for a new assault weapons ban and harshly criticizing the organization.
"It's the NRA and assault weapons that are killing our children," shouted one protester as he was led away by security.
The press conference came after President Barack Obama had called for new gun control laws, appointing Vice President Joe Biden to head a commission on the issue. Obama specifically called for it to look into a new federal assault weapons ban as well as mental health issues and the culture around guns.
An earlier ban on assault weapons, signed by President Bill Clinton, expired in 2004, and a dozen attempts to reinstate it have failed.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a longtime proponent of an assault weapons ban, has already promised to introduce a new bill on the first day of Congress in January.
Though the Newtown shootings have refocused the public debate, past mass shootings have not led to new gun laws right away. It has often taken several years and other shootings before new laws were passed.
Officials: Armed officers in every school a challenge
Rome and Floyd County have armed police officers in some schools, but putting armed officers in every school would be a fiscal challenge, according to local police officials.
The National Rifle Association broke its silence Friday about last week’s shooting rampage at a Connecticut elementary school that left 26 children and staff dead.
“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” the group’s top lobbyist, Wayne LaPierre, said at a Washington news conference.
LaPierre announced that former Rep. Asa Hutchison, R-Ark., will lead an NRA program that will develop a model security plan for schools that relies on armed volunteers.
Locally, an armed police officer splits time between Rome High School and Rome Middle School, but none are assigned to the elementary schools, according to Rome Police Chief Elaine Snow.
The costs are split between the police department and Rome City Schools. The police department provides the officer with a car and equipment.
“We do have officers patrolling in every sector daily,” Snow said.
The Floyd County Police Department has four school resource officers, according to Chief Bill Shiflett.
“They are all sworn, certified police officers and are armed,” Shiflett said. “They and other officers support all the feeder schools for the high school to which they are assigned.”
The Floyd County police program was created in 1998 under a community policing grant, Shiflett said.
“The grant originally paid 75 percent of the salary of four officers for three years, with the remainder being a local match,” he said. “The board of education paid 25 percent of the remaining local funds. After the grant expired we developed a Memorandum of Understanding with the board of education in which they reimburse us for the 75 percent of the annual salary cost of the four officers, and that is the current agreement.”
Shiflett said he agrees it would make school safer if an armed police officer was on every campus any time school was in session.
“Having someone trained to safely carry and retain their weapon on campus would defuse potential dangerous activity on campus and meet any armed attack with appropriate force and tactics,” Shiflett said. “This would reduce the potential for violence and reduce the potential for mass casualties in the event of an armed assault.”
But Shiflett and Snow agree there are fiscal challenges to having an armed officer on every campus.
“You can’t put a price on a person’s life,” Snow said. “But in the reality of things, who pays for it?”
The move could cost Floyd County about half a million dollars a year, according to Shiflett.
“For Floyd County, this would mean supplementing the current four school resource officers with at least 15 more police officers,” he said.
Shiflett said he and other staff members are in favor of arming school administrators and teachers if they are trained and pass similar standards as police.
“We realize this is way above our decision making authority, however, the idea should be talked about to see if it is the right direction and if school officials would want that to happen,” Shiflett said. “The shooting incident in Connecticut and Colorado only took minutes. Time is of the essence in a situation like this. First responding police officers may take several minutes or longer to arrive. Lives could be saved if there were trained school officials to react to a situation that are willing to accept the challenge and responsibility.”
LaPierre said “the next Adam Lanza,” the man responsible for last week’s mayhem, is planning an attack on another school.
“How many more copycats are waiting in the wings for their moment of fame from a national media machine that rewards them with wall-to-wall attention and a sense of identity that they crave, while provoking others to try to make their mark?” LaPierre said. “A dozen more killers, a hundred more? How can we possibly even guess how many, given our nation’s refusal to create an active national database of the mentally ill?”
He blamed video games, movies and music videos for exposing children to a violent culture day in and day out.
“In a race to the bottom, many conglomerates compete with one another to shock, violate and offend every standard of civilized society, by bringing an even more toxic mix of reckless behavior and criminal cruelty right into our homes,” LaPierre said.
He refused to take any questions after speaking. Though security was tight, two protesters were able to interrupt LaPierre’s speech, holding up signs that blamed the NRA for killing children. Both were escorted out, shouting that guns in schools are not the answer.
The 4.3 million-member NRA largely disappeared from public debate after the shootings in Newtown, Conn., choosing atypical silence as a strategy as the nation sought answers after the rampage. The NRA temporarily took down its Facebook page and kept quiet on Twitter.
Since the slayings, President Barack Obama has demanded “real action, right now” against U.S. gun violence and called on the NRA to join the effort. Moving quickly after several congressional gun-rights supporters said they would consider new legislation to control firearms, the president said this week he wants proposals to reduce gun violence that he can take to Congress by January.
Obama has already asked Congress to reinstate an assault weapons ban that expired in 2004 and pass legislation that would stop people from purchasing firearms from private sellers without a background check. Obama also has indicated he wants Congress to pursue the possibility of limiting high-capacity magazines.
Shiflett said, “it is a sad day in our country when we speak of having police officers at every school and arming teachers to protect our children.
“However, we must face the facts that there are evil, mean cowards that attack those that cannot defend themselves,” Shiflett said. “If the attackers know that they may be met with the same force they intend to inflict, then maybe they would reconsider their desire to harm someone. This is my opinion and I realize there will be many to oppose, but we cannot do nothing in hopes that evil will go away, because it will not.”
NRA's idea to militarize our schools won't make us safer: Opinion
It took a lot of nerve this morning for the head of the National Rifle Association to call for armed guards in every school across the United States just one week after the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. Militarizing our country's schools is an extreme overreaction and not the answer to countering the killing.
During NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre's press conference, he disrespected the victims, blamed everyone but the gun culture and completely ignored the fact that there needs to be a wider discussion on how to prevent gun violence altogether, along with a need to improve care for mentally ill people like gunman Adam Lanza.
With all the funding cuts to education, LaPierre's idea to post armed guards at every school is unattainable and ludicrous. On top of that, schools are already capable of hiring guards to protect students. Further, it's not at all clear whether an armed guard posted at Sandy Hook would have been able to stop Lanza, who entered the school with a military-style weapon and high-capacity clip.
An armed guard was on duty during the 1999 shooting at Colorado's Columbine High School, but 12 students and a teacher were still gunned down by a pair of young men who were clearly disturbed.
"The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," LaPierre said in a defiant rant that took aim at the influence of violent video games, how the news media allegedly "demonizes" gun owners and complacency by the federal government. Sorry to burst LaPierre's bubble, but stopping guns with more guns doesn't make us safer.
Not once did LaPierre discuss the need to balance firearm policy with Second Amendment protections for the sake of improving public safety. President Barack Obama has taken the right first step by appointing Vice President Joe Biden to oversee renewed efforts to end gun violence. Obama's call for action must be followed up quickly - and intelligently - to effectively end the senseless killing.
-- Opinion staff
Beginning in Jan., a Grand Prairie police officer will patrol each city school daily
by MATT GOODMAN
The Grand Prairie Police Department announced a plan Friday to bolster security by having an officer patrol each of the city's 47 school campuses beginning in January.
While Grand Prairie middle and high schools already have school resource officers patrolling them, department spokesman Lyle Gensler says they'll now have a presence at elementary schools as well.
The decision comes a week after a gunman killed 26 at a Connecticut elementary school, 20 of whom were children.
Gensler said the plan is "an effort to better protect our youngest, most defenseless children in our elementary schools."
According to a release, police higher ups will meet with administrators for each school district in Grand Prairie to "review security plans and make any needed additional recommendations." Patrol officers will meet with officials at each school to better their professional relationship.
These patrol officers will conduct daily walkthroughs of each campus to become familiar with their layouts in order to "effectively respond in an emergency." Officers will also familiarize themselves with each school's schedule and the areas surrounding the campuses.
Gensler also said the resource officers currently posted at middle and high schools will patrol their feeder elementary schools "at least once each school day."
Says his release, "The Grand Prairie Police Department believes these added security measures will better protect our younger school children and provide the highest level of police protection possible."
City Manager Tom Hart said the security plan is in line with the police department's committment to boost community policing by improving relationships with the public.
"Having that officer get out once or twice each day, that ties into neighborhood policing," Hart said. "Our police department works hand-in-hand with our school district, it's a great relationship."
The city and the police department have a joint partnership to pay for the resource officers. Hart said he didn't anticipate any added costs as a result of the expanded security plan.
"I think it's an outstanding program they're doing," Hart said, "but it's not a huge program."
Tatamy, Stockertown Mayors Want Tougher Gun Laws
Mayors for Tatamy, Stockertown and Bath -- as well as more than 750 U.S. mayors -- sent a letter to President Obama urging him to "make it harder for dangerous people to possess guns, and easier for police and prosecutors to crack down on them."
Editor's note: The following is a letter sent Wednesday to the White House from the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Among the mayors signing were Sherman Metzgar of Stockertown, Luke Duignam of Tatamy and Donald L. Wunderler of Bath.
This letter is in response to a different gun crime: the school shooting last week in Newtown, Conn.
Dear President Obama,
On Friday, Dec. 14, the entire nation watched as parents stood outside the Sandy Hook Elementary School and waited, desperately hoping to be reunited with their children. That moment will never end for the families of the 20 children and six adults who were murdered that day at the school.
As mayors, we are charged with keeping our communities safe. But too many of us have sat with mothers and fathers of children killed with guns. Twenty-four children enrolled in public schools in your hometown of Chicago were shot to death just last year.
At the moving memorial service on Sunday evening, you said: “If there is even one step we can take to save another child or another parent or another town from the grief that has visited Tucson and Aurora and Oak Creek and Newtown and Communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that -- then surely we have an obligation to try.”
Our bipartisan coalition of more than 750 mayors has joined forces with over 700,000 Americans and more than 100 survivors of deadly shootings, including the mass shootings you mentioned in your remarks. Together, we urge you to put forward an agenda that is rooted in common sense and that will make it harder for dangerous people to possess guns, and easier for police and prosecutors to crack down on them. That agenda should:
Require every gun buyer to pass a criminal background check: Background checks are the only systematic way to stop felons, domestic abusers and other dangerous people from buying firearms. These checks are instantaneous and highly effective. Since its inception, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) has blocked firearms purchases at licensed dealerships by millions of individuals who are barred by federal law from owning them. But criminals and other prohibited purchasers avoid these checks by buying firearms, including online and at gun shows, from unlicensed “private sellers” who are not required by federal law to conduct the checks.
Millions of gun sales -- estimated at more than 40 percent of the U.S. annual total -- are conducted through private sellers. The Fix Gun Checks Act (H.R.1781 / S.436) would close this enormous gap in our laws by requiring a criminal background check for every gun sale.
Get high capacity rifles and ammunition magazines off our streets: Military-style weapons and high capacity ammunition magazines have no appropriate civilian or sporting function. They are designed to kill large numbers of people quickly. They are also disproportionately used to kill law enforcement officers; approximately one out of five law enforcement officers slain in the line of duty is killed with assault weapons. The time has come to review the federal assault weapons ban that expired in 2004 and draft a new law that is clear and enforceable and will take these weapons out of our communities.
Make gun trafficking a federal crime: Today, there is no clear and effective statute making gun trafficking a crime. Prosecutors are instead forced to rely on a weak law prohibiting engaging in the business of selling guns without a federal license, which carries the same punishment as trafficking chicken or livestock. As a result, according to the Justice Department’s Inspector General, U.S. Attorneys decline to prosecute 25 percent of those cases while declining only 9 percent of drug conspiracy cases. Mayors Against Illegal Guns supports proposals to empower law enforcement to investigate and prosecute straw purchasers, gun traffickers, and their entire criminal networks.
Those ideas require action by Congress, but these steps you and your Administration could and should take immediately to curb gun violence:
Appoint an ATF director: The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (ATF), the federal agency responsible for enforcing our gun laws, has gone without a confirmed director for more than six years. During that time, criminals and those with serious mental illness have been able to take advantage of insufficient enforcement of existing federal gun laws, and an estimated 72,000 Americans have been murdered with guns. In 2011, for the first time in over a decade, more police officers were shot to death in the line of duty than were killed in automobile accidents. The need for leadership at the ATF has never been more urgent. The time has come for you to make a recess appointment to fill the vacancy at the top of the ATF.
Prosecute prohibited purchasers who attempt to buy firearms, ammunition or high-capacity magazines: The Justice Department should vigorously prosecute felons and other prohibited purchasers who fail gun background checks. In 2009, the Federal Bureau of Investigation referred more than 71,000 such cases to ATF, but U.S. Attorneys ultimately prosecuted only 77 of them. Prosecuting these offenders is a goal broadly supported by our coalition and the National Rifle Association. The Department should also develop a mechanism for sharing NICS denial information with local and state law enforcement officials by sending them active alerts; or, at a minimum, posting the information at the National Criminal Information Center so state and local law enforcement officials can access it during investigations.
Require federal agencies to report records to NICS: The NICS Improvement Act of 2007 requires federal agencies to submit mental health, substance abuse and other records that prohibit a person from owning a gun to NICS. However, few agencies comply. In October 2011, the FBI provided data to MAIG on reporting by 60 federal agencies. Of those 60 agencies, 52 had given zero mental health records to NICS. Although total federal agency reporting of mental health records increased by 10 percent between March and October 2011 -- to 143,579 -- the vast majority of those records had been submitted by one agency, the Department of Veterans Affairs. Even fewer federal agencies are reporting drug abusers. Only three agencies -- the FBI, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the Court Services and Offenders Supervision Agency (CSOSA), the probation and parole services agency for the District of Columbia -- have submitted any substance abuse records, and the vast majority of federal agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Administration, have not submitted a single substance abuse record. The president should issue an executive order requiring all federal agency heads to certify twice annually, in writing, to the U.S. Attorney General that their agency has submitted all relevant records to NICS.
Repeal remaining Tiahrt restrictions: While Mayors Against Illegal Guns and our law enforcement allies have made progress in relaxing the “Tiahrt restrictions,” which are riders to the federal budget that restrict access to federal gun data, some still remain. These remaining restrictions keep the public, particularly researchers and elected officials, in the dark about gun traffickers -- specifically, who they are and how they operate. It also requires the FBI to destroy records of approved NICS background checks within 24 hours. That makes it harder to detect law-breaking dealers who fake their records, or to identify straw buyers who undergo the checks on behalf of someone who couldn’t pass. The Tiahrt Amendments also say ATF can’t require dealers to inspect their inventory, which could reduce the tens of thousands of guns that go missing or are stolen each year. Finally, the police and other law enforcement agencies that get trace data can’t use it in license revocation proceedings or in civil litigation. The administration should repeal these restrictions in its next budget.
In the past few days, the American people came together in a national outpouring of grief and sympathy for the families of victims slain in the mass shooting in Newtown. We share in that grief. But our constituents are also outraged and looking for leadership from the White House. We look forward to working with you to find a solution to gun violence in our country.
Maryland Nonprofits Awarded Grants to Combat Domestic Violence
Thirteen groups received a total of $200,000 from the Verizon Foundation to help in their efforts to raise awareness and end domestic violence.
by Anna Staver
Thirteen charities from across Maryland gathered at Anne Arundel Medical Center to receive their share of $200,000 in grants from Verizon to help raise awareness and stop domestic violence.
"Domestic violence is a serious but preventable crime that affects millions of Americans in every segment of society," said a statement from Anthony Lewis, Verizon’s mid-Atlantic region vice president of state government affairs. "Verizon has focused resources and funding for a number of years to help break this vicious cycle and make a meaningful impact on these victims’ lives.”
Lewis' company donated the grants fund thought its Verizon Foundation—which has donated more than half a billion dollars to charities across the country since 2000. The company also provides wireless phones and airtime to victims of domestic violence.
Verizon officials gathered with Maryland lawmakers at the hospital to present the checks and discuss honor the work being done by the 13 groups.
"The best way to prevent domestic violence is to bring it out of the shadows and hold abusers accountable for their actions," said House Speaker Mike Busch (D-Annapolis).
In the United States, about 24 people per minute are victims of physical violence, rape or stalking by an intimate partner, according to the Center for Disease Control. That adds up to more than 12 million people a year.
In Maryland, more than 1,500 people have died as a result of domestic violence between 1987 and 2010, according to the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence. In 2010, domestic violence related deaths dropped to a record low of 38 for the year.
“Domestic violence destroys families and leaves physical, mental and psychological scars for years beyond the actual trauma. This must stop," Sen. John Astle (D-Annapolis) said. "I commend these organizations and concerned corporate citizens like Verizon for stepping up to help those who need it most."
Here are the groups that received grants and how they plan to spend the funds.
Anne Arundel Health System, to train 300 health care providers to address, respond to and prevent domestic violence by identifying patients who are being abused, documenting the abuse and making referrals to local service providers.
Community Advocates for Family and Youth, to implement a comprehensive domestic violence prevention and education program to include 24-hour support services for victims, mental health and crisis counseling, emergency housing and legal referrals for protective order preparation.
Domestic Violence Center of Howard County, to provide more than 100 adult clients and 45 children with weekly, one-hour therapy sessions to assess each individual for symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Family Crisis Resource Center, to implement Project Aspire, which will offer support services and empowerment resources to victims of domestic violence.
Greater Baltimore Medical Center, to train 200 health care providers to better identify and address suspected or confirmed cases of domestic violence and abuse.
Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, for emotional and supportive services to victims of domestic violence and their families, and to conduct community outreach and education largely in underserved communities where clients have limited English-speaking skills.
Mercy Medical Center, to implement a domestic violence prevention and safety education program for middle and high school students in Baltimore City and promote safe dating relationships.
Mid-Shore Council on Family Violence, for mental health services, including crisis counseling for rural and Spanish-speaking victims and their families.
Sexual Assault/Spouse Abuse Resource Center, to educate and provide mental health counseling service to domestic violence survivors and their children so they can end abusive situations and transition into safety and independence.
Sisters4Sisters, to implement L.O.V.E., a domestic violence education and prevention program that will include self-esteem workshops and healthy dating information for young women and girls ages 9-24.
The People’s Community Baptist Church, to help with community outreach, awareness and domestic violence prevention through public service announcements, public events, educational materials, monthly workshops, counseling and referrals.
University of Maryland Foundation Baltimore County, to launch the Relationship Violence Prevention Program to educate more than 3,000 students about how to recognize, address and prevent relationship violence in the school and in their communities.
Women Who Care Ministries, to sustain and expand its domestic violence prevention program in Maryland, including mental health counseling, workshops and health and shelter services.
Women Prisoners Endure Rampant Sexual Violence; Current Laws Not Sufficient
by Eleanor J Bader
Allowing male guards to oversee female prisoners is a recipe for trouble, says former political prisoner Laura Whitehorn. Now a frequent lecturer on incarceration policies and social justice, Whitehorn describes a culture in which women are stripped of their power on the most basic level. "Having male guards sends a message that female prisoners have no right to defend their bodies," she begins. "Putting women under men in authority makes the power imbalance as stark as it can be, and results in long-lasting repercussions post- release."
Abuse, of course, can take many forms, from the flagrant - outright rape, groping, invasive pat-downs and peeping during showers or while an inmate is on the toilet - to verbal taunts or harassing comments. And while advocates for the incarcerated have long tried to draw attention to these conditions, they've made little to no headway. But that may be changing thanks to the promulgation of rules, finalized in June, to stem the overt sexual abuse of prisoners. The nine-years-in-the-making Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) is the first law in US history to address the sexual abuse of those in lock-up, and its passage made clear that the sexual abuse of the incarcerated - men and women - is a pervasive problem in prisons throughout the 50 states. But let's hold off on PREA for a minute and first zero in on the reality of female incarceration more generally.
According to The Sentencing Project, between 1980 and 2010, the number of incarcerated women ballooned by 646 percent, from 15,118 to 112,797; most were convicted of nonviolent offenses. Add in females who are incarcerated in local jails and the number increases to approximately 205,000. In addition, more than 712,000 women are presently on probation, and another more than 103,000 are on parole.
Prisoners' rights activists note that, more often than not, these women enter the criminal justice system with long histories of domestic and other abuse. Indeed, a 2007 study by The American Civil Liberties Union found that 92 percent of California's female prisoners had been abused in some way prior to being taken into custody.
The Center for Child and Family Studies at the University of South Carolina corroborates this finding and notes that many teenage girls experienced their first arrest shortly after fleeing abusive homes. "What may be remarkable within this sample is the cumulative impact of cumulative victimization over the life span," CCFS researchers report. "Many of the women suffered multiple traumas. They were victimized in multiple ways - child abuse and neglect, adult relationship violence, sexual violence, not to mention the number of times they experienced each type of victimization." The Center calls it "poly-victimization" and cites women's efforts to stop aggression or retaliate against an aggressor as a key reason many are behind bars. The researchers also note that a history of sexual abuse typically leads to other problems, including unplanned pregnancies, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, low self-esteem, depression and addiction - issues that can make incarceration exceptionally difficult.
Whitehorn acknowledges that many of the women she was jailed with, or has come to know since her release, were abused, and says that the daily pat-down searches that take place in federal prison sometimes cause flashbacks for those who've been molested; many subsequently become easy prey for exploitative guards and administrators, the result of a learned acquiescence to predatory behavior.
At the same time, she says, sex between staff and inmates happens, and when it occurs, it raises the ante of unequal power even further. "Even when it's quote 'consensual,' for a prisoner to consent to sex with her 'boss' is troubling, especially since a refusal can be considered a refusal to obey a direct order," Whitehorn continues. "The woman can lose her job or be thrown in the hole [an isolation cell] for saying 'No,' and even if her job pays pennies, it allows her to buy toothpaste and other necessities."
It's impossible to know how many staff members abuse prisoners since most survivors are reluctant to report offenses to authorities. In fact, a report released by the Department of Justice (DOJ) in August 2012 estimated that one-third of all victimizations among the general public go unreported. If that's the case in the outside world, one can only imagine the underreporting by those who are incarcerated. That said, a 2007 DOJ survey of 40,419 inmates in 282 local jails revealed that 5.1 percent of women and 2.9 percent of men indicated that they had experienced one or more incidences of sexual violence while imprisoned. A second survey of 146 state and federal facilities revealed an overall rate of 4.5 percent, with no distinction for gender.
Enter the PREA, first passed in 2003 and signed into law by George W. Bush. The law articulates a zero-tolerance policy for the sexual assault of inmates. It also establishes uniform standards for detection, prevention and punishment of violators. The first US legislation to tackle this issue, it applies to federal and state facilities for adults, youth and immigrants facing deportation.
Amy Fettig, staff counsel at the National Prison Project of the ACLU, calls PREA "a revolution in the way we deal with what happens behind bars." While not every advocate is as enthusiastic as Fettig, she believes that the recently published final rules are an important tool in making prisons more humane for both prisoners and staff. "The standards recognize that prisoners usually come back to their communities," she begins. "If they've been so brutalized that they can't become productive members of society, it hurts everyone. If prisoners are badly damaged, their pathologies grow, and this sometimes leads to a return to prison or bad public safety outcomes for the community."
Fettig said that historically, prisons were monitored for environmental safety - things like whether they were clean and abided by fire laws - but few, if any, paid attention to allegations of abuse. PREA changed that, she argues, by establishing the eight-member PREA Commission, which includes human rights and legal experts, to hold hearings and then make recommendations to DOJ. "The commission recognized that, until recently, the ideology was to blame the victim and assume that she must have wanted the abuse if she did not fight back. The commission's recommendations are a first attempt to regulate what happens behind prison walls, and if they are adopted, it will change the tolerance of abuse." Beginning in August 2013, governors will be required to allow independent auditors to monitor conditions and must report the auditor's findings to DOJ every three years. Fettig believes this will hold prison officials accountable, at least in the state facilities under the governors' jurisdiction.
Other advocates, however, are skeptical about PREA's impact. "For meaningful auditing to occur," Dori Lewis and Veronica Vela of the Legal Aid Society's Prisoners' Rights Project wrote to the PREA Commission "auditors must be trained to look behind protestations of compliance by jail and prison officials and assess whether actual compliance with the standards is being accomplished." They also argue that cameras - in cells, hallways and closets - are imperative, and lambaste PREA for failing to mandate their installation.
Then there's the issue of corroboration and whether prison officials will believe incarcerated complainants or side with their own colleagues. Lewis and Vela are dubious that coworkers will turn one another in. "It is clear to us that staff interprets their obligation to report as being triggered only when they observed actual sexual touching," their letter to the commission continues. "They did not believe that seeing an officer give a particular prisoner cigarettes or other gifts, or whispering to a particular prisoner in close proximity for long periods about personal matters, was enough to trigger the duty [to report what they saw]. The fact is that sexual contact almost always happens in private: If a duty to report is to mean anything, then indicia of an improper relationship must also be reported."
Equally glaring, they add, is that PREA does nothing about nonsexual abuse.
A.L. was an inmate at New York City's Bayview Correctional Facility - a small, low-security women's prison that has the highest percentage of inmate abuse complaints in the country. Incarcerated from 2006 to 2009, A.L. says that she was routinely ridiculed by staff. "I am a lesbian," she says, "and did not dress as feminine as the guards liked. Some of the officers would harass me real hard, make comments about my loose shirt and pants. They singled me out for torment and were always pushing up on me and the other girls."
Worse, she continues, they turned their backs when she was jumped by other prisoners. "I was sitting on the toilet with my pants around my ankles when two inmates kicked down the door. I was not hurt so badly that I needed hospitalization, but I got 15 days for fighting even though there were two of them and one of me." Years later, she confides, she still cannot use public restrooms or close a bathroom door.
Whitehorn also reports living with residual injury. "The fact that guards would grab me in inappropriate ways - one would jam his hand into my crotch and squeeze my breasts extremely hard - has been damaging," she says.
Then there's the random drug testing. "You regularly have to give urine samples, and they can ask for them at any time of the day or night. They literally watch you pee," said Whitehorn. She recalls her cellmate in California's Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin being called out for testing and returning to the cell visibly upset. Whitehorn later ascertained that the guards had made her strip and then lift one leg up to pee. "They told her that they wanted to make sure she did not have a vial of clean urine taped to her thigh that she could pour into the toilet," she says.
Whitehorn was so outraged that she protested to the unit manager. The inmates later filed a formal complaint, and in the process, learned that dozens of other women in Dublin had been subjected to the same treatment. "They were humiliated," she recalls, "by both what had happened and because they had not protested out of fear of going to the hole or losing the few privileges they had."
"This is the issue," said Whitehorn. "You can have a relatively short two-year sentence and still be hurt by it. When I was released and began working, if my boss gave me extra work, no matter how much, I'd just do it and would not speak up or complain."
"I'd panic on the street if my girlfriend took my hand," she said. "I'd scream, 'We can't do that!' I had hyper-anxious responses to police sirens and wore clothes that were many sizes too big because I wanted to be covered up and protected."
As for PREA, while it may make a dent in curtailing the most egregious sexual abuse, advocates agree that a great deal more needs to be done to address the many issues facing women prisoners. "Power abuse is the root of the problem," Whitehorn concludes, "and until incarcerated women have a way to defend their bodily integrity, prisons will continue to mimic - and exaggerate - the male supremacy of US society."
Volunteers Pack Christmas Dinners For Needy Families
BALTIMORE (WJZ)—Baltimoreans are reaching out to help others during the holidays. It’s happening in South Baltimore.
Ron Matz reports city police are teaming up with a popular restaurant to make sure it will be a Merry Christmas for those in need.
The spirit of giving is alive and well at the Southern District Police Station.
“It feels good. Anytime you can help someone less fortunate, especially in your own community. It’s nice to extend that,” said Brian McComas, Ryleigh’s Oyster.
“Every year we do Christmas baskets. We feed 350 families in the neighborhood. We have officers, police explorers and community members helping. They’re packing the boxes. Each box has a turkey, rice and everything you need for dinner,” said Officer Timika Dyson, Southern District police.
“It’s great. We get so many people calling in. Everyone has a story. They are so grateful we’re able to assist them with food this holiday season,” Officer Dyson said.
It’s a season for Ryleigh’s Oyster in Federal Hill to donate 350 turkeys.
“We did a turkey drive and had some fun. We had a give ‘em the bird party. We allowed people to purchase a turkey and gave them a gift card. It gave them an incentive to join us in the act of giving,” McComas said.
This act of giving is in its eighth year with a lot of volunteers.
“It’s teamwork. It’s a long process, but it’s all worth it. Ryleigh’s oyster houses gave us 350 turkeys. They did it last year and again this year,” Dyson said.
“We have people from the police department, police explorers, guardian angels and neighbors doing the work. Off-duty police officers give their time to deliver this to the people they protect,” said Jack Baker, Southern District Police Community Relations.
Volunteers include neighbors and friends, including southern district Sergeant Kelly Johns and her sons.
“It makes me feel great. It makes you feel like you actually did something for the community. We deal with crime all the time, and this is another side of community policing,” said Sgt Johns, Southern district police.
All of the food will be delivered in time for Christmas dinner.
“I’ve been doing this eight years. The council got involved. We partnered with Brian at Ryleigh’s, and we’re doing better than ever,” Baker said.
This is the second year Ryleigh’s Oyster has donated the turkeys to the Holiday Baskets of Cheer Program in South Baltimore.