As prepared for delivery



Deputy Commissioner Townsend testimony before the Board of Correction

April 23, 2019






Good Morning. My name is Sarena Townsend and I am the Deputy Commissioner of Investigation & Trials for the Department of Correction. I am pleased to speak with you today to provide information and updates to the Department’s efforts to become PREA certified, the strides we have taken to address concerns previously raised by the Board and the City Council, and our collective efforts to increase sexual safety across the Department.


Update from Last Year

Since April 2018, the Department closed over 1300 PREA reportable cases, which includes the 1,216 cases previously identified as the PREA backlog. There are currently 400 open, PREA-reportable cases that comprise the secondary backlog, which again was an expected outcome of focusing on older cases and all of which we anticipate having closed by August 2019. As of last week, the Department did not have any PREA reportable adolescent cases older than 90 days.

When the Department last discussed its PREA operations, we reported that our case substantiation rate was similar to the national average. While we have reason to believe this will continue to be true of current cases, the closing out of lower priority cases from 2015 and 2016 has resulted in a lowered substantiation rate for this review period. The PREA backlog was created as a result of deprioritizing closing paperwork on cases that had been identified by investigators as unlikely to be substantiated. It should not be surprising, then, that focusing on these cases led to a lower substantiation rate. Finally, I would like to note that the current national substantiation rate was produced in 2017 using data from 2015. We anticipate the Bureau of Justice Statistics will announce an updated PREA case substantiation rate in 2020 using data from 2018. We believe that upcoming figure will ultimately be more of a relevant comparison for evaluating the Department’s substantiation rate than one based on 2015 numbers.


Description of the PREA Department

As the Commissioner described in her remarks, the Department has greatly expanded its PREA Investigations Team. In the last year, the unit has nearly doubled in size, comprised of an Investigations Director, a Trials Director, a Deputy Director, 6 Supervising Investigator and 1 Agency Attorney, 30 Investigators, and 2 Data Analysts. Expanding the PREA unit has allowed the Department to have the resources to investigate, review, and close cases in a timely manner. Although every case is investigated within 72 hours, we know that the additional effort necessary to administratively close cases is a critical and meaningful aspect of delivering justice for victims of sexual violence and building institutional trust in the Department’s commitment to sexual safety. Beginning in September 2019, we anticipate that all PREA cases will be fully closed within 90 days of an allegation, unless there is an open external investigation that bars the Department from doing so.


Addressing the Board’s Audits

In advance of this hearing, the Board audited the Department’s unannounced PREA rounds and the PREA investigation team’s closing memos. PREA unannounced rounds are a critical component of institutional sexual safety and we are pleased that the Board’s audit found that, in compliance with minimum standards, these rounds are happening and happening at unpredictable hours. While I will leave additional details and questions regarding the unannounced rounding practice to my colleague Assistant Commissioner for PREA Faye Yelardy, I do want to share that we have reviewed the Board’s three recommendations from this report and I’m proud to say that all three are either already enacted or underway.

In the weeks leading up to this hearing, I was pleased to have the opportunity to speak with the Board’s staff several times about the closing memo audit. I thank you for reviewing the 18 pages of notes we sent over on your initial draft; I was glad to see some of the Department’s notes incorporated into the final draft. I appreciate the spirit of collaboration with which the Board approaches these reports and the Department shares your collective goal of accurate and transparent reporting.

Before we move to the questions phase of this hearing, I would like to take a minute to discuss several key findings from the Board’s audit and offer additional explanation about the Department’s practices:

  • The Department takes its responsibility to separate incarcerated individuals from their alleged abuser seriously and acts expeditiously whenever possible. While we recognize that this may not always be noted in the closing memo, separation between victim and abuser, though an order of separation, is standard Departmental practice. While an investigator may not note the order of separation in the closing memo, it is included in the full investigation file.
  • In previous audits, the Board raised concerns about confidential interview settings. While investigators have always strived to conduct interviews confidentially, due to constraints of the jail environment, it had not been standard practice. The Department took the concerns the Board raised in its April 2018 report seriously and has since set up a system for confidential interviews. Every DOC facility now has a location set up for these interviews. While we can certainly continue to improve our operational processes, I do want to take a moment to acknowledge that where we are today, in comparison with where we’ve been, is a milestone achievement.
  • Finally, I want to stress that this closing memo audit should only be consider just that – and audit of closing memos. It is should not be confused with an audit of the quality of investigations into PREA complaints. We recognize that it is important for closing memos to be robust in their description of the investigation, but ultimately they are an administrative tool that cannot replace the entirety of the evidence and information within the investigation file.
  • Moving forward, we would welcome the opportunity to discuss the methodology of the Board’s audit with the Board and make recommendations as to what additional information within the full investigation file should be considered during future audits. Additionally, we don’t believe auditing 20 of more than 1300 cases is an appropriate sample size for this audit type. In future audits, we urge the Board widen its scope and evaluate a statistically significant number of cases in order to draw its conclusions.



The Department continues to work hard at improving the quality of its PREA investigations. The unit has thrived under a team of leaders and supervisors who have sexual assault investigative background – both on the criminal and administrative level. Moving forward, we will continue to refine our PREA investigative practices and look forward to the integration of PREA cases into the case management system which we anticipate will be ready for use next year. I am proud to be joined this morning by AC Faye Yelardy and we are prepared to discuss any questions you may have regarding the Department’s continued compliance with PREA Investigations at this time.