Stop prison sexual violence.

Photo by Ahmet Demiroğlu on Unsplash

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The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) became federal law in 2003 (BJA). It prohibits sexual misconduct in correctional settings such as prisons, jails, juvenile facilities, and ICE detention facilities (National Institutes of Justice). But from my own experience in the Washington prison where I’m currently serving my time, I know that trying to report PREA violations can result in retaliation by staff. This allows endemic sexual violence within prisons and other carceral institutions to go unchecked.

A decade and a half ago, sexual assault was normalized within the Evergreen State’s Department of Corrections (DOC). This included staff as well as incarcerated people. It wasn’t uncommon to hear of guards, caseworkers, or other staffers violating the boundaries of their incarcerated subordinates, or even each other. Across the country, penal institutions permit sexual assault of incarcerated people. For instance, guards were disciplined for sexual abuse of female inmates in the states of Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Maryland, New Hampshire, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming — all in a two-year period (Amnesty International). The fact that incarcerated people face retaliation for reporting sexual misconduct means that the majority of cases go unreported.

In Washington, inmates, family members/associates, and other community members are supposed to be able to report: 1) allegations of sexual misconduct and 2) retaliation of inmates and staff for reporting sexual misconduct and/or staff actions, or neglect that may have contributed to an incident of sexual misconduct. However, when one of my neighbors made a PREA report against a guard recently, he was just transferred to another facility. No action was taken against the guard.

I endured trauma while living in Sacramento Juvenile Detention, a boy’s home that was shut down because of sexual abuse. While there, I was inappropriately strip-searched to such a degree that I was later awarded money from a class-action lawsuit. (Robinson v. Sacramento County).

That’s why I grew instantly queasy when I was instructed last month to fill out an application to work for Correctional Industries, a company that requires daily strip searches of the inmates who work its sweatshop assembly lines inside prisons. I wrote on the application, “I do not consent to being strip-searched regularly, and will file a PREA complaint every time I’m forced to do so.”

Rather than asking why I wrote this, my caseworker informed me that she would no longer be recommending me for Graduated Reentry, a program that allows incarcerated individuals who maintain positive behavior to release early (Washington Department of Corrections). About a week later, I learned that a negative behavioral observation had been added to my permanent prison record because I said I would make a report to PREA.

Though my caseworker has control over my future, she doesn’t have the credentials to understand the trauma I endured. Most DOC employees have about as much education as the prisoners over whose lives they lord power. If they’re given any communication, mediation, or sensitivity training, their professional conduct doesn’t reflect it. In my experience, most caseworkers and administrators began as guards. These people are not qualified for mental illness, hereditary addiction, generational poverty, or the disproportionate incarceration of Black and Brown people. Many people who are sexually assaulted or harassed within prisons remain silent because they anticipate indifference or retaliation (Amnesty International).

The PREA program exists because voters at large believe prisons should be safe environments that rehabilitate the people they house. It is DOC staff that disregard this public consensus. However, your tax dollars pay their salaries, which means they work for you. Make your voice heard. Demand that state workers be accountable to the people they serve by supporting either Just Detention International’s campaign to end sexual abuse in detention or by donating to organizations that help those most affected by non-compliance with PREA guidelines — if not for my incarcerated neighbors and me, then for the communities to which we return.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • The prison system tolerates and creates sexual violence against incarcerated people.
  • The pervasive nature of this violence led to legislation like the Prison Rape Elimination Act.
  • Incarcerated people still face retaliation for reporting sexual violence.

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