Each year, 200,000 adults and children are sexually abused in U.S. jails, prisons, and detention centers: more than the population of Tallahassee or Birmingham, Alabama (JDI). It’s not like this is a secret. The United States, which incarcerates more people than any other country in the world, openly acknowledges the prevalence of sexual assault in its prisons to the degree that it serves as a punch line in popular movies and TV shows (Popdust). The sentencing of an unpopular individual is enough to prompt “hundreds of jokes” about it (them). No society in human history has confined as many of its own people in order to subject them to sexual violence as the contemporary United States.
Survivor stories of rape and sexual assault can be hard to read but are pervasive throughout a carceral system aimed at harming and oppressing individuals. Survivors like Trish, a transwoman incarcerated in an Oklahoma men’s prison since 1989, have stories of sexual abuse in prisons from other incarcerated people and staff members. Their accounts either go uninvestigated and ignored or they, themselves, are held at fault for their attack. “What do you think? You have boobs in a male prison. You have to expect this kind of stuff to happen to you,” Trish recalls (JDI). Groups like Just Detention International are working to support them and other survivors.
• Send a message to an incarcerated survivor today. The site includes sample messaging and only takes a couple of minutes.
• If you or someone you know has experienced sexual abuse while in detention, use this Resource Guide to find service providers in all 50 states that can help.
• Support Just Detention International, INCITE!, and Critical Resistance.
• Reflect: Why does it matter to acknowledge someone’s pain? How did it feel the last time someone acknowledged something harmful you experienced?
Though sexual assault is prevalent throughout the U.S. injustice system, it’s prevalent against marginalized populations like survivors of previous sexual abuse and inmates with mental illnesses. Trans women are almost always held in facilities for men, which heightens the abuse they are likely to experience (JDI). 86% of women in jail report having experienced sexual violence in their lifetime (Vera). And this doesn’t just happen in prisons and jails. There have been dozens of reports of sexual abuse in detention centers across the country, including these cases at a ICE facility in Georgia and these from El Paso, Texas.
Somehow, incarcerated people have been left out of the conversation of ending rape culture – even though those incarcerated are the most likely to experience harm. This is due to the way that our government and society treat people who are incarcerated. The social stigma encourages people to discard them and shrug off any harm they experience while serving their sentence (Vice). Though 90% of incarcerated people never had their day in court, no one should be subject to sexual violence, regardless of their complicity in a crime. Furthermore, no one should support an institution in our country that allows such harm to happen while people are serving a sentence. This is one of the many reasons our “criminal justice system” is anything but just. We can’t fully dismantle rape culture in our society without addressing the harm that happens here.
All survivors of sexual abuse — no matter where the abuse happens — deserve support and compassion.
The Prison Rape Elimination Act, or PREA, was established in 2003 thanks to the work of organizations like JDI. This was designed to create more federal standards around the safety of those incarcerated. This law made jails and prisons implement safety protocols, including staff training to stop sexual assaults and report them properly and providing victims with rape kits and counseling to address the harm. If facilities fail to pass or decline an audit of their standards, they lose 5% of their federal prison grant funding. Although recognizing this harm is a step forward in protecting the safety of those incarcerated, critics argue that it falls far short of holding these facilities accountable (NPR). In addition, this only applies to state facilities, leaving county jails up to their own standards (The Marshall Project).
In addition to the resources listed above, JDI trains rape crisis counselors to help survivors inside prisons and jails and advocates for more policies to protect incarcerated people from abuse. They also work to address sexual abuse in prisons, not just in the U.S. but worldwide, as rape culture is a global issue – including for those detained. Their website puts it best: “When the government removes someone’s freedom, it takes on an absolute responsibility to keep that person safe. No matter what crime someone may have committed, rape is not part of the penalty.” You can take action today by sending a message to a prison rape survivor and supporting currently and formerly incarcerated people working to dismantle the brutality of mass incarceration.
If you or anyone you know is affected by sexual violence, you can call 1-800-656-4673. You can go to the National Sexual Assault Hotline for additional information or to chat privately with a trained staff member online.