In the light of the #MeToo movement, where people around the world are sharing their stories of sexual harassment, rape, and abuse in the workplace, on college campuses, and in social settings, the world can see the dehumanization and injustice that individuals encounter every day due to sexual victimization. It happens more than a lot and it happens everywhere. The stories you can’t as easily hear on the news or see on social media, though, are the ones of the individuals who have been silenced even more heavily than the average survivors of sexual misconduct and made invisible by the State. These are the individuals who experience sexual abuse behind bars, either by other inmates or the guards and administrators who have been entrusted with their care. They are the incarcerated men and women in our country and they deserve to be heard.
In private and government run prisons alike rape and sexual assault is a problem much like in the rest of society. According to the Bureau of Judicial Statistics, “In 2011-12, an estimated 4.0% of state and federal prison inmates and 3.2% of jail inmates reported experiencing one or more incidents of sexual victimization by another inmate or facility staff in the past 12 months or since admission to the facility, if less than 12 months” and that is if the incident had been reported. Meanwhile, in juvenile facilities, one in ten kids reported incidents of rape, sexual assault or victimization with 80 percent of those kids reporting a staff member victimized them. Because often prisoners do not have easy or safe access to report the abuse and harassment, many are afraid to report it, as a result countless cases are not heard at all and there is nothing these individuals can do to stop the harassment and abuse.
In 2003, President George Bush signed the Prison Rape Elimination Act or PREA, which is zero tolerance for any sexual abuse. For PREA to work, prison wardens have to be on board with the standards. There is training for staff members to learn proper ways to stop sexual assault and report incidences, as well as provide prisoners rape kits and counseling. In addition, auditors are supposed survey institutions at random, questioning prisoners and employees about procedures. However, whether these standards are being followed is another question. Since the standard were put into effect, there are still huge holes is the effectiveness of PREA and human lives and dignity are at stake. Lovisa Stannow, executive director of Just Detention International, wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times in June detailing the ineffectiveness of PREA at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility, a private prison known for violence and sexual abuse. In 2015, an auditor praised the staff for its effectiveness in implementing PREA, while prisoners still describe in detail their abuse and guards ignoring their cries for help.
And this is in 2018, fifteen years after the act for PREA was first signed.
Now, as the ICE Detention Centers are spreading in the US under Trump’s Presidency, the abuse and victimization is growing. The New York Times recently released an article, Sexual Assault Inside ICE Detention: 2 Survivors Tell Their Stories, profiling two women who share their experiences where guards took advantage of them, while being moved or held in detention centers. In the article, one woman explains, “I didn’t know how to refuse because he told me that I was going to be deported. I was at a jail and he was a migration officer. It’s like they order you to do something and you have to do it.”
Sexual violence while the victim is behind bars is always unacceptable. A system of justice that is ineffective at stopping the further dehumanization of incarcerated individuals is both insensitive and cruel, especially when the guards in power are part of the problem and the standards and audits that are supposed to keep these guards in line are either being ignored or failing.