January 14, 2015

What methods of communication may satisfy the external reporting mechanisms required by standards 115.51, 115.251, and 115.351 (b)? What are the required parameters of anonymity set forth by the standards for inmates who wish to make such reports anonymously?


The standards do not specify the precise reporting mechanisms required to satisfy these standards. However, the PREA Notice of Final Rule (NFR) makes clear that the Department intended to provide agencies with a degree of flexibility with respect to methods of reporting. See 77 Fed. Reg. 37156-57 (June 20, 2012). Accordingly, so long as the avenue(s) for external reporting provides all inmates (and residents) access to an external reporting entity allowing inmates to communicate in a manner that does not reveal the substance of the communication to agency or facility officials, and safeguards to the greatest extent possible the fact that the inmate utilized such mechanism, the reporting method may satisfy this requirement. A telephone, inmate correspondence, and email all may be acceptable avenues for inmates to contact the appropriate external entity.

The NFR also makes clear that the standards require the external reporting entity to accept anonymous reports, and also requires the entity to conceal the identity of the reporting inmate from agency and facility officials when the inmate requests anonymity. Supra. However, if the external entity knows the identity of the reporting inmate and the entity has a legal obligation to report allegations of sexual abuse to another external entity (such as law enforcement officials, or a social services agency in the event of a child abuse allegation), then the external reporting entity may reveal the identity of the reporting inmate to another external entity if required by law.

Finally, because the standards expressly permit the reporting inmate to maintain anonymity with respect to agency and facility officials, agencies must take great care to avoid reporting mechanisms that would necessarily expose the identity of the reporting inmate to facility staff and administrators.

Illustration One: A facility provides, as its only avenue for inmate external reporting, a mailing address to an external agency willing and able to fulfill the requirements of the standard. All regular outgoing inmate correspondence is subject to opening and inspection by facility staff. Further, all outgoing inmate correspondence must include a return address for the inmate including the inmate’s name.

To comply with the standard, the facility should ensure that inmate correspondence addressed to the designated external reporting entity remains unopened. Further, if the facility requires the name of the sending inmate on the letter, the facility should maintain strict policies and procedures that prohibit mailroom staff from revealing to other staff or administrators the fact that the named inmate sent correspondence to the sexual abuse reporting entity.

Illustration Two: A facility maintains a disciplinary isolation unit where inmates have extremely limited access to common areas and programming. Generally, in order for inmates in this unit to obtain access to the telephone, email, or materials for composing and sending correspondence, the inmate must request access from security staff supervising the housing unit.

To comply with the standard, all inmates (including those inmates in restrictive housing) must be afforded an avenue reasonably designed to safeguard knowledge within the facility about the fact that an inmate is making an external report of sexual abuse.

If correspondence is the only external reporting mechanism for inmates, then the facility may provide inmates in this unit with regular and timely access to a “lock box” rather than requiring the inmate to provide the correspondence to the unit’s security staff. Such a lock box should only be accessible by a designated agency official or selected officials. Similarly, if a hotline is the only external reporting mechanism, then configuration of the telephone should not make obvious that any inmate using the telephone system is making an allegation of sexual abuse. For example, if the hotline is a dedicated phone, then the phone should also be used for other purposes besides reporting sexual abuse.