A women in an orange jumpsuit leans on the steel bars of a jail cell.

The Unaddressed Crisis of Sexual Abuse in Prisons

Back in March, former Federal Correctional Institute at Dublin (FCI Dublin) warden Ray J. Garcia was sentenced to almost six years in prison for sexual abuse of inmates. For more than three decades as the head of FCI Dublin in California, Garcia treated inmates as “sexual play toy[s],” fondling, penetrating, and sending nude photos of himself to incarcerated women. This is the first time a prison warden has been locked up for committing prison sex abuse (KTVU). But this conviction does little to change endemic prison sexual abuse across the U.S. carceral system

Many of the sexual abuse survivors who testified against Garcia are still incarcerated at FCI Dublin. One witness, Katrina, describes being “abused to this day because she spoke out against Garcia’s behavior.” Another, Melissa, says, “It’s a death sentence to report (on an officer). I have been tormented in there. I live in fear every single day because of this… Nobody in this room could understand the fear unless you’ve worn these clothes. These guards, they play God with your life” (KTVU). Most of the women incarcerated at FCI Dublin were convicted for nonviolent, victimless crimes like drug possession. Many are serving longer sentences than the warden who attacked them. “This is not justice,” wrote one individual. “So many women are in here for non-violence crimes with no victims. He had so many victims. More than the judge ever heard about. I have some real issues with that” (KTVU). 


Use this form to tell your senator to support sexual assault survivors.

• Support Just Detention International’s work to end sexual abuse in detention.

• Join or support an organization fighting the prison-industrial complex like Critical Resistance, the Centro Legal de la RazaJailhouse Lawyers Speak, and the Anarchist Black Cross

Garcia is one of dozens of FCI Dublin employees under investigation, mostly for prison sex abuse. They represent more than 10% of FCI Dublin’s staff (KTVU). Prison sexual abuse isn’t limited to a single institution or a handful of “bad apples.” The U.S. government estimates that 200,000 adults and children are sexually abused in its own jails, prisons, and detention centers each year (JDI). The U.S. Department of Justice admits that “most juvenile detention staff who sexually victimized children faced no legal repercussions for their actions” (JDI). 

Though progress has been made in ending prison sexual abuse, it’s not nearly enough. The 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act mandates staff training and rape kits and counseling for incarcerated survivors. If facilities fail or decline an audit of their standards, they lose 5% of their federal grant funding. Although a step forward in protecting those incarcerated, critics argue that this falls short of holding these facilities accountable, with survivors still facing disbelief and apathy (USA TodayNPR). In fact, Ray Garcia himself led Prison Rape Elimination Act trainings at FCI Dublin in 2019 and 2020 (Department of Justice). 

The Sexual Abuse Services in Detention Act has been reintroduced as a bill in the U.S. Senate. If passed, it will open up more “emotional support services behind bars,” including funding for community-based providers to work closely with incarcerated survivors and a national resource center to ensure appropriate care and expert assistance is available (JDI).

“Sexual abuse is a systemic, nationwide problem in U.S. detention facilities—and for many years, the vast majority of people who are victimized have not been able to get the help they need. If this bill passes, incarcerated survivors will no longer have to suffer in silence,” said Lovisa Stannow, the former Executive Director of Just Detention International, when the first bill was first introduced in 2020 (JDI). We should take action to pressure lawmakers to pass this legislation.

We should also recognize that the ultimate solution to sexual violence in prison is abolishing the carceral system. We know empirically that prisons don’t “work,” since “decades of research have shown that prison is the least effective place to rehabilitate offenders.” If our goal is reducing interpersonal harm, incarcerating people is worse than doing nothing since “a stint in prison increases the likelihood that inmates will reoffend” (The Guardian). As Angela Davis explains, “Prisons do not disappear problems, they disappear human beings. And the practice of disappearing vast numbers of people from poor, immigrant, and racially marginalized communities has literally become big business” (Colorlines). 

To put it plainly: there is no legitimate justification for a single prison, jail, or detention center anywhere on the planet. That the wealthiest country in human history maintains a sprawling prison-industrial complex where inmates are routinely brutalized and subjected to sexual violence is a shocking injustice sure to be judged harshly by history. Fortunately, we have a choice. We can reject complacency and tacit support of an inhumane system by joining organizations like Just Detention International that are confronting its brutality. 


• Sexual abuse of adults and children is widespread in U.S. prisons, jails, and detention centers.

• The Sexual Abuse Services in Detention Act would create a free rape crisis hotline for incarcerated people. 

• Prison doesn’t work. Incarceration increases crime. 

This article was updated on July 31, 2023, to include the latest changes to the SASIDA. 

1200 800 Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee is a writer and organizer plotting a better world in Philadelphia. His work has previously appeared in Notes From Below, Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, Plan A Magazine, ROAR Magazine, and Teen Vogue.

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