Life After Rape on Rikers:

One Woman’s Story of Hope

(Artist: Brittany Kathryn Knapp)

Being a rape and sexual abuse survivor, many times over, I know what it means to feel powerless — to feel trapped inside a body that seemingly belongs to others. I’m familiar with the stigma, shame, and victim-blaming that individuals and systems perpetuate by silencing, shunning, and questioning our narratives. I’ve suffered the impact of sexual trauma on my physical and mental health, frequently finding myself on the brink of giving up and giving in — to end it all and finally be free.

But even the most vile and depraved of my experiences do not compare with the sexual and psychological terror that Kathy Morse survived on Rikers Island. I recently connected with Kathy while organizing around the current and long-standing crisis of sexual violence at Rikers — a jail complex where correction officers beat, torture, and rape incarcerated individuals with impunity. Kathy bravely shared her story in the hopes of empowering other survivors to come forward, as so few rarely do.

Hope: archaic: trust, reliance. A desire accompanied by expectation of or belief in fulfillment: expectation of fulfillment or success. Someone or something on which hopes are centered. The feeling of wanting something to happen and thinking it could happen: a feeling that something good will happen or to be true. The chance that something good will happen. Someone or something that may be able to provide help. Someone or something that gives you reason for hoping.
When I was incarcerated the word hope became my mantra. I hope that this is all a nightmare, I hope that when I wake up tomorrow I will be in my own bed; I hope that the judge gives me bail; I hope that I can get an alternative to incarceration program; I hope that I do not get assaulted or raped while incarcerated; I hope I do not lose my mind; I hope that I do not get state time: I hope that I will get a short sentence; I hope that my sentence is to run concurrent with my Pennsylvania sentence; I hope that New York gives me “jail time credit”; I hope that I can get my own cell; I hope that I do not get sent to a state facility far from home; I hope that my appeal will be successful; I hope that I get work release; I hope that I earn “merit time”; I hope that I do not have to see the parole board and that only my papers will go for parole stipulations; I hope that I make my parole board; I hope that my loved ones still love me; I hope that I do not get sick and have to be treated by the medical staff at a correctional facility; I hope that I have a home to go home to; I hope that I find a job; I hope that my husband will continue to stand by me while I am gone; I hope that my husband stays faithful while I am gone; I hope my daughter does not forget who I am; I hope that my sister does not die while I am incarcerated; I hope that I am able to find a job when I am released; I hope I survive this…I could go on and on but you get the general idea.
Not everything I hoped for turned out as I wanted it to. I did not get bail; I did not get an alternative to incarceration program; I did get state time; I did not get my own cell, in fact the entire time I was housed on Rikers I spent it in a dorm style units with 57 women in rows of cots; I was sent to a state facility 14 hours from home; I did not lose my mind but had 5 different week-long stays in the Mental Health unit and was once on suicide watch for all of 8 hours (because the facility put me on Thorazine as a substitute, since the medication I took at home was not on their formulary, which turned out to be too strong and I kept falling and had difficulty walking, they thought I was trying to hurt myself) and I was stripped naked and provided a “dignity suit”; my sister did die while I was incarcerated (actually 6 weeks shy of my coming home, and because I was incarcerated in another state I was not allowed to attend the funeral); my husband did not stay faithful; my daughter did remember her mother; I did get “merit time” and I did make my first parole board appearance; I was denied work release; my appeal was unsuccessful; I got consecutive not concurrent sentences; I did not get “jail time credit” for the 15 months I sat in a Pennsylvania facility prior to my sentencing in that state with a detainer from New York. But my hope never diminished.
I was both assaulted and raped. I will not go into the details as it is very personal and private and something that to this day I still grapple with. I remember laying in my cot after being raped trying to figure out how to ease the pain, how to get up but most importantly how to stop the bleeding without anyone finding out, to hide the bruising which fortunately was mostly covered by clothing. I recall being so scared and afraid to go to medical, to tell anyone. I covered myself up as best I could, stayed away from others and isolated myself, I was not going to allow them to get the best of me. I remember each court trip I had, begging my attorney to get me out, to get the judge to grant me bail, that I could not go back to Rikers, that I did not want to spend one more second in that holding cell in the courthouse watching the roaches crawl on the floor and walls around me, with the guards playing bootleg DVDs over and over again, to not have to board that inmate transport bus for the return trip to Rikers, to what became my private hell. I had hope that one day this nightmare would end, that I would survive, that no one would do anything else to me. No matter how bad the ache in my chest was, no matter how much my stomach hurt or how I could not eat, how I could not keep any food or liquids in, I never lost hope. I kept going despite the nightmares and panic attacks (which continue to this day), the sleepless nights, the isolation, the fear…I still had and continued to have hope.
I have been home almost two years now. I wish I could tell you it was everything I hoped for and more, but it is not. My daughter and I are as close as we could ever be. My siblings will still not talk with me. I have been unable to find a paying job, but I keep applying for work each and every day and I hope and know that one day I will get a job. My scars physically, emotionally and mentally are starting to heal. My husband and I are separated and trying to work things out, hopefully one day we will be a family again. My daughter and I currently live with my mother, and I rely on the kindness of others and SNAP to survive. I have hope that my bad streak of luck will turn around, and I have hope that 2016 will be MY YEAR, and I am not going to allow anyone or anything to take away my hope!
I just want to let people know that you have to have hope, it’s what keeps you going. It gives you the necessary determination, the desire to get out of bed in the morning, and you need to keep encouraging those you love who are incarcerated to keep hope alive, that it will get better. I am giving everyone I know, and ask that they pass it around, a “gift of hope”, a never give up, never give in mentality. Stay positive, stay focused, stay faithful, stay determined. Persevere, do not let anyone take away your spirit, do not allow anyone to break you no matter what your current situation, and never, never, never, ever give up HOPE!
My hope is that you share and comment but most importantly that we spread the HOPE!

Kathy’s fearlessness and determination to survive are what millions of people are currently struggling to find — both behind bars and in the free world. In fact, one of those millions might be someone you know, a family member or a friend…or who knows? It could very well be you.

Read Kathy’s entire story, and learn more about efforts to #EndRapeOnRikers

(Artist: Brittany Kathryn Knapp)