This Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Remember Incarcerated Survivors

By Cynthia Totten, Deputy Executive Director at Just Detention International

In 2019, Devon, a gay man serving time at a prison in Nevada, was raped by two other prisoners whom he considered friends. When he told other inmates, they accused him of lying and warned that if he told staff what happened, he risked being hurt or killed. Still, Devon mustered the courage to come forward two months later. But when he reported the rape to facility officials, they responded indifferently. During the investigation, Devon was interrogated as if he had done something wrong. Ultimately, his report was deemed “unsubstantiated,” because he had been drinking with the rapists in his cell.

Devon’s experience has clear parallels with the mistreatment rape survivors in the community typically endure. But he noted one key difference between his story and those of survivors on the outside. In a letter, he wrote:

“In the age of #Metoo and Times Up, sexual assault is being taken more seriously. Men, women, and children are all stepping up and reporting those who sexually assaulted them. They have a voice and it matters so much. But as for inmates…our voice is not taken seriously. Sexual assault is not part of our punishment…but after what happened to me, I don’t know if I believe that anymore.”

Everyone has the right to be safe from sexual abuse — including people who are locked up. And yet the truth is that U.S. corrections facilities are plagued by this violence. Every year, a staggering 200,000 adults and children are sexually abused behind bars. The majority of survivors are abused not once, but again and again. About half of all assaults are committed by staff — the very people whose job it is to keep incarcerated people safe.

LGBT people are among those most vulnerable to abuse behind bars. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) found that in a 12-month period, roughly one in eight LGBT prisoners were preyed upon by another person in custody. These appallingly high rates of sexual abuse are a direct result of the rampant sexism and homophobia behind bars, particularly among staff. Many officials simply look the other way when an LGBT prisoner is assaulted, either because they assume what happened was consensual or they blame LGBT people for their own victimization.

Prisoners who are survivors of prior sexual abuse and those who have mental illness or disabilities are also at a disproportionately high risk of sexual abuse in detention. And sexual abuse doesn’t just happen in prisons and jails. It happens in juvenile detention centers that have a supposed focus on rehabilitation and putting youth on the right course; in community corrections facilities where people who have served their time are preparing to return home; and in police station lockups after an arrest.

Incarcerated survivors need and deserve help — and yet they are among the most isolated people in society. They are often locked up far away from their communities; they do not have access to the journalists or social media platforms — like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook — that have helped make sexual assault and #MeToo a national topic of conversation. As a result, their voices have been almost entirely absent.

Perhaps it is the fact that prisoner rape survivors are removed from the rest of society that makes it so easy for us to ignore their plight. But it’s not merely that we are indifferent to the suffering of people behind bars. Many Americans also find humor in it. Indeed, the “don’t drop the soap” joke is so ubiquitous that it’s become cliché.

So when Harvey Weinstein was convicted of rape in February, it was no surprise to see the usual flurry of flippant remarks on Twitter. Such comments often appear when a high-profile defendant is convicted, but it’s especially ironic here given that Weinstein’s conviction is being heralded as a critical victory for the #MeToo movement.

At the same time, it’s important to note that a growing number of people are pushing back against prisoner rape jokes. Indeed, I have been heartened to see a number of people in my Twitter feed, including prominent feminists and journalists, decry the crude remarks about what Weinstein “deserves” in prison. Prisoner rape is still a popular punchline, but it feels like, finally, the culture is starting to shift.

So what can you do to support incarcerated sexual assault survivors?

  • Lift up the voices of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated sexual assault survivors this Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and encourage others to do so, including by sharing testimonies from Just Detention International’s website.
  • Help dismantle rape culture by remembering incarcerated sexual assault survivors in ongoing efforts — and public discourse — aimed at addressing sexual violence.
  • If you work in a rape crisis center, make sure that your program offers services to incarcerated sexual assault survivors. More than ever before, victim advocacy programs around the country are working with prisons and jails to offer crisis support to survivors behind bars.

Many people believe sexual abuse in detention is inevitable. On the contrary, when corrections leaders embrace safe practices and hold perpetrators accountable, this violence can be stopped. When we make light of rape in prison, we are giving a green light to those who commit these horrific abuses — and, all too often, get away with it scot-free. And we simply cannot tolerate that any longer.

Cynthia Totten is a Deputy Executive Director at Just Detention International (JDI), a health and human rights organization that works to end sexual abuse in all forms of detention. Founded in 1980, JDI is the only organization in the U.S. — and the world — dedicated exclusively to ending sexual abuse behind bars. Cynthia leads JDI’s national training and technical assistance program, supporting the work of state and tribal sexual assault coalitions, victim advocates, corrections officials, and funding administrators to ensure that incarcerated survivors have access to crisis services. A lawyer with two decades of experience in social justice and human rights, Cynthia also contributes to JDI’s federal policy and international advocacy efforts.

Since 2001, NSVRC has coordinated the national Sexual Assault Awareness Month campaign observed every April. This year’s theme, “I Ask,” is all about consent. Join the campaign by accessing free resources at nsvrc.org/saam. Resources are available in Spanish at nsvrc.org/es/saam.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month

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