Yesterday, 15 of us – all women between the ages of 22 - 62, left our material possessions behind, gave up our driver’s licenses, and walked into a minimum security correctional facility in Lexington, Kentucky. We were counselors, social workers, advocates, and educators, and we were participating in an on-site orientation. We were also the entire staff of a regional rape crisis center. The deputy warden granted us special permission to bring in one cell phone, so that we could continue to operate our 24-hour crisis hotline. Like most rape crisis centers across the country, we have suddenly found ourselves thrust into a very new and unfamiliar territory.
In 2003, the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) called for measures to prevent and respond to sexual abuse in prisons, jails, youth detention facilities, police lockups, and halfway houses. In May 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice issued national standards aimed at eliminating this crisis. This year we signed memorandums of understanding with local correctional facilities to provide counseling services and medical advocacy for persons who are sexually assaulted while incarcerated. While our center may have had a handful of cases involving incarcerated individuals in the past, we really have little idea what it will be like to provide services to large numbers of male victims in such a controlled, secured environment.
So we spent the afternoon with a larger-than-life, 6’5 corrections officer, filled out a stack of security papers divulging our most personal information, and learned among other things, that we are not permitted to give candy to the inmates. The reasoning behind this of course is simple - one piece of candy might lead to a sandwich, a sandwich to some cigarettes, and before you know it, you might find yourself helping to plan an escape. While I understand the necessity of these boundaries and precautions, I was sadly reminded of my visit to the zoo last summer, where I saw signs prohibiting visitors from feeding the animals.
As the only rape crisis center in our region, as soon as we received the federal mandate to provide rape services in prisons, we were on it. We got out there and started communicating with all correctional facilities in our jurisdiction. We learned the law inside and out, realigned staff to meet the possible increase in demand for our services, and began preparing ourselves to respond effectively. But what we didn’t do is ask ourselves the hardest question that we’ve all been subconsciously avoiding.
You see, each and every one of us entered the anti-violence movement because we live and breathe advocacy…against violence. We do not lack passion for justice and we do not shy away from outwardly demanding it. But yet, here we are supporting individuals, some who may have very well been perpetrators of violence themselves. So regardless of how beautifully we followed the step-by-step federal mandate, we failed to ask ourselves one important question.
Could we - not as social workers and counselors, but as anti-violence advocates and human beings - truly open our hearts to help those individuals who have inflicted violence on others?
No one is denying that because of personal choices and life circumstances, inmates lose their privileges for basic freedom. What we as a society, must ask ourselves however is this: when we remove someone’s freedom, even if it is to punish them or protect them from hurting others, should we allow them to be subjected to even more violence? And if we did, what good would come out of that?
I know there are some of you out there reading this who will say, If they are raped, tough. They got what they deserved. But did they? I don’t know of any court of law that has ever issued a sentence that included rape or sexual assault. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) estimates that roughly 200,000 people are sexually abused behind bars in a single year. One study found that nearly 10 percent of former state inmates reported being sexually abused during their most recent period of detention. About half of the prisoners reporting abuse were victimized by staff. On average, each prison rape survivor is assaulted three to five times a year.
As advocates against violence, we are committed to advocating against all forms of violence. We are particularly passionate about ending sexual violence, because we know the devastating impact it has on victims, regardless of where it happens - even if it’s behind bars. Even if the victims may have been the inflicter of violence themselves in the past. Even if the victims are living out a punishment that they may very well deserve. They still don't deserve to be raped. We will provide resources for them to heal. We will believe them. We will give it our best shot to help end a cycle of poverty and crime that would only be further perpetuated by emotional and physical scars of sexual violence. Scars that we believe if left unattended, will most likely be brought back to families and communities.
So while we will follow the rules and not offer candy to the inmates, as anti-violence advocates, we will always offer hope. Because doesn’t everyone deserve hope? What would you rather see? An angry, depressed, and traumatized individual walking out of those prison doors. Or someone who has served their time and has been given all the tools and resources they need to begin contributing to our community again. We choose hope.
For more information regarding PREA and sexual violence in prisons:http://www.justdetention.org/