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(All photos courtesy of Just Detention International)

This will not cost you any money. It will take just a few minutes of your time.

Please send a message of hope to survivors of sexual assault who are usually forgotten by those of us who are not behind bars. Just Detention International has once again asked for your help this holiday season.  

Currently incarcerated persons are probably already the most isolated individuals in the United States. Those who are not only incarcerated but also the victims of sexual violence while imprisoned face little support, few mental health and recovery services, the ongoing threat of violence, and even retaliation should they speak of the abuse. With their support networks ripped from them, their right to safety revoked, and their abusers (who are most frequently prison officials) having control over every aspect of their lives, they are among the most vulnerable sexual assault survivors.

In light of this, sending a 250 character message of support and greeting during the holiday season may seem a truly underwhelming gesture. It is precisely these same conditions, however, that makes such a small act able to speak volumes. Incarcerated persons are cultural pariahs, socially treated as subhuman, and/or told that they deserve sexual violence as a condition of their detention. A few kind and compassionate words, under those circumstances, could mean the world.

Just click here to give the gift of hope.

Rape is an ugly crime. It has nothing to do with sex and a lot to do with power—power over someone weaker than the rapist. It is also not a joke. Yet it has become one in popular culture.  

The founders of JDI, Russell Dan Smith, Stephen Donaldson and Tom Cahill, were themselves victims of sexual assault while incarcerated.

Listen to the words of some of the survivors:

Although you may think that I’m not like you, we are not so different. I want to have control over my own body and my life, just as you do. I want to choose the people with whom I get intimate, just as you do. I absolutely did not want to have sex with that man in the San Francisco Jail, but I felt powerless to refuse him.
Cecilia Chung, Survivor of sexual violence in detention
Because I was raped, I got labeled as a ‘faggot.’ Everyone looked at me like I was a target. It opened the door for a lot of other predators. Even the administrators thought it was okay for a ‘faggot’ to be raped. They said, ‘Oh, you must like it.’ I’m here to tell you that no one wants to be raped. — Bryson

JDI has many such survivor stories on their website. They call them Portraits of Courage.

I wept as I read Bryson's story. He went to jail on a probation violation for forging a check, was raped more than 25 times over a period of 9 months, contracted HIV and died in 2010.

Write a letter please.

There is more that you can do—if you are willing. Contact Attorney General Eric Holder. The Justice Department holds annual hearings of a Review Panel on Prison Rape.

Read David Kaiser and Lovisa Stannow's article on Prison Rape and the Government.

How many people are really victimized every year? Recent BJS studies using a “snapshot” technique have found that, of those incarcerated on the days the surveys were administered, about 90,000 had been abused in the previous year, but as we have argued previously,2 those numbers were also misleadingly low. Finally, in January, the Justice Department published its first plausible estimates. In 2008, it now says, more than 216,600 people were sexually abused in prisons and jails and, in the case of at least 17,100 of them, in juvenile detention. Overall, that’s almost six hundred people a day—twenty-five an hour.

The department divides sexual abuse in detention into four categories. Most straightforward, and most common, is rape by force or the threat of force. An estimated 69,800 inmates suffered this in 2008.3 The second category, “nonconsensual sexual acts involving pressure,” includes 36,100 inmates coerced by such means as blackmail, offers of protection, and demanded payment of a jailhouse “debt.” This is still rape by any reasonable standard.

An estimated 65,700 inmates, including 6,800 juveniles, had sex with staff “willingly.” But it is illegal in all fifty states for corrections staff to have any sexual contact with inmates. Since staff can inflict punishments including behavioral reports that may extend the time people serve, solitary confinement, loss of even the most basic privileges such as showering, and (legally or not) violence, it is often impossible for inmates to say no. Finally, the department estimates that there were 45,000 victims of “abusive sexual contacts” in 2008: unwanted touching by another inmate “of the inmate’s buttocks, thigh, penis, breasts, or vagina in a sexual way.” Overall, most victims were abused not by other inmates but, like Jan, by corrections staff: agents of our government, paid with our taxes, whose job it is to keep inmates safe.

Here are some of the DOJ's proposed rules:

The standards seek to prevent sexual abuse and to reduce the harm that it causes when it occurs. Each of the four sets of standards consists of 11 categories: prevention planning; responsive planning; training and education; screening for risk of sexual victimization and abusiveness; reporting; official response following an inmate report; investigations; discipline; medical and mental care; data collection and review; and audits.  

Among other things, the proposed standards would require correctional agencies to:  

  • Ban cross-gender strip searches, and for juveniles, cross-gender pat-down searches;
  • Check the backgrounds of new hires and not hire past abusers;
  • Establish an evidence protocol to preserve evidence following an incident and train investigators to act promptly and diligently;
  • Screen inmates through a process that takes into account their safety and assign them to housing in a way that best protects them;
  • Provide multiple methods to report sexual abuse;
  • Provide inmates access to outside victim advocates for emotional support services related to sexual abuse;
  • Provide appropriate medical and mental health care to victims;
  • Prepare a written policy mandating zero tolerance toward all forms of sexual abuse and sexual harassment;
  • Discipline staff and inmate assailants appropriately, with termination as the presumptive disciplinary sanction for staff who have engaged in sexual touching;
  • Train employees on their responsibilities in preventing, recognizing and responding to sexual abuse;
  • Allow inmates a reasonable amount of time to file grievances so as to preserve their ability to seek legal redress after exhausting administrative remedies; and
  • Conduct audits to assess compliance.  


Though they are not out yet, a coalition of groups are pushing for them to be expanded.

Rights groups want prison-rape-prevention rules expanded

Eight years after Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act, the Department of Justice is finally on the verge of implementing it with a series of new guidelines and auditing techniques to try to reduce sexual assaults against inmates in federal custody. But human rights groups, including the ACLU, are enraged that the proposed rules don't apply to people held in immigration detention centers and are calling on the Obama administration to make a change.

When the act was passed in 2003, it focused on inmates held by the Department of Justice, which oversees the country's federal prisons. But it's the Department of Homeland Security that houses most people held on immigration violations — roughly 33,000 a day are in Homeland Security custody.

Justice has released a set of proposed rules to implement the act and will adopt them in early 2012. Now critics are pushing hard to force Homeland Security to undergo the same overhaul to ensure that immigration detention centers are as safe as prisons will be under the new guidelines.

If you are not one of the over 2 million people held in jails, detention centers and prisons across the U.S., think about your freedom over the holidays and beyond. Spare a little of your time thinking about those we have locked away.  

They have a right, a basic human right, to not be raped.

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