Incarcerated people are the population most at risk of sexual violence — but their concerns are largely missing from our current cultural moment of reckoning.
Illustration by Cathryn Virginia
Since the dozens of sexual assault accusations against Harvey Weinstein entered the public consciousness in October, industry after industry has been rocked by a “moment of reckoning” around sexual violence. The resulting movement, now known as #MeToo, has brought the language of rape culture and institutional complicity into our homes and offices—but the population most at risk of rape has been largely excluded from the conversation.
In a single year—2011 to 2012—about 100,000 people locked up in US prisons and jails experienced sexual victimization, according to a survey conducted by the federal government’s Bureau of Justice Statistics. Staff members perpetrated more than half of these attacks. Among the most vulnerable populations of incarcerated people, the rates of abuse were staggering, with one in three transgender prisoners reporting that they had experienced sexual violence behind bars.
We’re told that our tax-funded prisons and jails are there to punish perpetrators of violence and to protect “society” from their malfeasance. As such, prisoners don’t always garner public sympathy, even though understanding their experiences of sexual violence is essential to understanding our own. Prisons indicate the truth of how we deal with survivors, especially when they’re not young, white, and lithe: Rather than actually address the legacy of harm they’ve endured, we cast them out as criminals and throw them behind bars. Prisons illustrate that who can claim survivorhood is still a matter of public opinion: Even in 2018, some people are still said to “deserve” what they’ve got coming.
A whopping 86 percent of women in prison are survivors of sexual violence, while 77 percent are survivors of intimate partner violence, according to a 2016 study published by the Vera Institute of Justice. Some survivors are punished for acting in self-defense; others are punished for crimes related directly to their abuse, for example selling or storing drugs at the duress of an abusive partner. Survivors of abuse might also be locked up for crimes of poverty or trauma-related substance use.
If Rose McGowan can be arrested on dubiously-timed cocaine charges after telling her story, imagine what poor women and women of color face: the high likelihood that they’ll end up in prison instead of getting help.
A whopping 86 percent of women in prison are survivors of sexual violence, while 77 percent are survivors of intimate partner violence.
Bresha Meadows killed her abusive father at the age of 14, after she, her mother, and her siblings endured years of brutal violence. Rather than immediately being offered treatment, Meadows was arrested and spent about a year in juvenile detention, before being sent to a mental health treatment facility. Other survivors have been sentenced to decades in prison for acting in self-defense, such as Ky Peterson, a Black transgender man who fought back against and ultimately killed his rapist.
If we really wanted to eradicate sexual violence, we would be protecting survivors of abuse from criminalization, not throwing them behind bars, argues Mariame Kaba, the co-founder of Survived and Punished, a collective working to end the criminalization of survivors of domestic and sexual violence. “And that’s certainly not the case.”
Importantly, prison sexual violence isn’t just a result of prisoner misconduct, but guard violence and institutional complicity. In a survey of LGBT incarcerated people conducted by the anti-prison group Black & Pink, 12 percent of respondents said they had been raped or sexually assaulted by prison staff. Of the 31 percent of prisoners who reported being assaulted by another prisoner, 76 percent said that they were intentionally placed at risk by prison staff.
The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), passed in 2003, was supposed to address the epidemic of sexual violence on the inside. But advocates say that the legislation is largely ineffective, in part because correctional jurisdictions face limited independent oversight and only very minimal financial penalties for failing to comply.
“You could not design a better factory for unchecked abuses of power.”
And if there are barriers to reporting sexual violence on the outside, these are multiplied many times over for survivors who are assaulted on the inside, explained Victoria Law, a longtime reporter on women in prison and author of the book Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women. Pissing off the wrong guard can mean having your family harassed when come to visit, having your letters from the outside “disappear” on a regular basis, getting written up for trivial or fabricated disciplinary offenses, as well as outright targeting through further physical or sexual violence.
And even if all goes well — meaning you’re taken seriously and not retaliated against for reporting — telling prison staff that you’ve been assaulted often means ending up in solitary confinement for “protection” while the allegations are investigated. And who can bear that? “I’d rather be raped every day than be in the hole,” one transgender woman, Daisy Meadows, told me in 2016.
Moira Meltzer-Cohen is New York City-based attorney who has frequently worked on prisoners’ rights cases, including supporting survivors on the inside. “The very nature of the institution involves a captive group, enormous disparities in power between prisoners and guards, and among prisoners, and almost zero oversight or accountability,” she told Broadly in a text message. “You could not design a better factory for unchecked abuses of power.”
In prison, strip and cavity searches are a routine, mandated part of everyday life, and prisoners can have no expectation of privacy when they’re showering or changing. You can be placed in contexts where you are completely at the mercy of abusive staff — like Yvette Gonzales, who was placed in “protective” solitary confinement a New York state prison, then raped repeatedly by a correctional officer. It’s an environment in which, by definition, your physical autonomy is stripped from you entirely — even consensual sex and even masturbation are punishable offenses. In that sense, the epidemic of sexual violence in prisons makes perfect sense.
The bottom line is that prisons are inextricably linked to sexual violence — and centering and lifting up all survivors will be impossible unless we humanize those behind bars. “We’re not going to stop sexual violence by continuing to criminalize people,” said Mariame Kaba of Survived & Punished. “If you’re anti-rape, you’re going to have to be anti-prison.”