Prison Rape: Assault Shouldn’t Be a Part of the Sentence


This guest post is a part of the Feministe series on Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Liliana Segura is a senior editor at and a board member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty.

“I’ve been raped, physically beaten, extorted, pimped out/sold, intimidated, manipulated, threatened, humiliated, [and] harassed by both officers and inmates,” California prisoner Meagan Calvillo wrote a few years back, in a blunt summary of what happens every day in American prisons. Among transgender people behind bars, her story is not unusual; as Emily Alpert wrote in 2005, “outside of prison, transgender people are among the most marginalized in the United States; inside it, they confound a system that’s ill-prepared to serve them, or even to decide where to put them.”

Cavillo’s experience may sound extreme, but it mirrors that of the most vulnerable prison populations in the U.S. In 1994 in the case Farmer v. Brennan, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a prison official’s “deliberate indifference” to the risk that a trans woman prisoner named Dee Farmer would be raped when placed within the general population of a men’s federal prison violated her Eighth Amendment rights. Yet, “deliberate indifference” remains a good phrase to define the broader attitude towards prisoners who are raped behind bars; among them, transgender prisoners, gay prisoners, young prisoners, prisoners who are locked up for the first time, and prisoners who are mentally ill are often the most targeted for sexual assault by guards and other prisoners alike, their bodies treated as a commodity in the prison power economy. If survivors of sexual assault are routinely silenced in the outside world, those who are assaulted behind prison walls are even more invisible. They are also the least likely to receive sympathy or help from people on the outside.

“Survivors of sexual abuse behind bars experience the same emotional pain as other rape victims,” the staff at Just Detention Inc, the only organization in the country that is “dedicated exclusively” to eliminating sexual assault in prisons or jails, remind us. Yet the ugly reality — familiar to anyone who has ever seen depictions of prison on TV or in popular music, or heard the phrase “don’t drop the soap” — is that prison rape has long been ingrained in the cultural imagination as, at worst, a hilarious punchline about deserving convicts, at best, an indignity that simply comes with the territory.

To combat this attitude, JDI launched an ad campaign a few years ago to force people to visually confront their unconscious double standards about rape victims. “Would you joke around about this man being raped?” asks one ad about a young man dressed in a nondescript t-shirt. In the next frame, the same man is dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit. “How about now?

Printed on postcards and sent out to prison administrators, these ads have attracted a lot of attention in the past several months, but as Lovisa Stannow, JDI’s Executive Director told’s Matt Kelley last month, they are not a new phenomenon. “JDI has been distributing these postcards for several years, to prison officials and others,” she said. “We revamped our website earlier this year and featured them prominently on the homepage, which led to the ‘discovery’ of the images among bloggers.”

In the public debate, prisoners tend to be silent and invisible. Most inmates come from marginalized, low-income communities and people of color are vastly over-represented among them. Prisoners cannot stage public relations campaigns to counter injustices on late-night television or on the big screen. But flippant and ill-informed attitudes about inmates and their right to be free from sexual violence are major obstacles to ending this type of abuse. That is why JDI has made it part of its mission to ensure that prisoner rape is described accurately — as a crime and a devastating human rights violation. The postcard campaign is part of that effort.

It is probably impossible to know exactly how many prisoners are raped behind bars. “According to the best available research,” reports JDI, “20 percent of inmates in men’s prisons are sexually abused at some point during their incarceration. The rate for women’s facilities varies dramatically from one prison to another, with one in four inmates being victimized at the worst institutions.” With some 2.3 million people behind bars in the U.S., the implications are nothing short of a human rights and public health epidemic.

Fortunately, things are starting to change. Stannow cites a “dramatic shift in the debate about prisoner rape” in the past year alone, thanks in part to decades of work by dedicated activists, many of whom are former prisoners and rape survivors themselves.

Stephen Donaldson, one of JDI’s former directors, was a pacifist protesting his government’s bombing of Cambodia in 1968 when he was arrested on the White House lawn, tossed in jail, and, in his own words, “gang-raped about sixty times over two days,” with the complicity of a DC prison guard. Donaldson was one of the earliest people to speak publicly about prison rape, authoring the Prisoner Rape Education Project, which published “practical information and advice on prisoner rape.” He died of AIDS, the result of contracting HIV from one of the people who raped him.

Thanks to the pioneering work of people like Donaldson, today survivors of rape have more of a voice.

“I continue to contend with flashbacks of what this correctional officer did to me and the guilt, shame, and rage that comes with having been sexually violated for so many years,” former prisoner Necole Brown told the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission (NPREC) in testimony published last year. “I felt lost for a very long time struggling with this. … I still struggle with the memories of this ordeal and take it out on friends and family who are trying to be there for me now.”

Brown is just one of many prisoner voices in the 276-page NPREC report, which offers an important, newly comprehensive look at the problem of prison rape in the United States. Mandated by the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, the report makes recommendations for how to address issues like housing, staff training, prisoners education, and medical and mental health care for victims of sexual assault. The U.S. Attorney General has until this coming June to codify the recommendations.

Anyone who wants to learn more about the pervasiveness of rape behind bars should read the NPREC report, which, in addition to compiling expert and survivor testimony, sheds new light on the increasing problem of sexual assault in immigrant detention centers: “In the 15 years from 1994 to 2009,” the authors write, “the number of immigrants held in detention pending a judicial decision about their legal right to remain in the United States increased nearly 400 percent. For the 2009 fiscal year, ICE has budgeted enough money to detain 33,400 people on any given night and more than 400,000 people over the course of the year. The population of immigration detainees includes adults, thousands of ‘unaccompanied’ children, and whole families confined together.”

Because immigration detainees are confined by the agency with the power to deport them, officers have an astounding degree of leverage — especially when detainees are not well informed of their rights and lack access to legal counsel. The Commission learned that officers have propositioned women whose cases they control, telling them that if they want to be released they need to comply with their sexual demands. The fear of deportation cannot be overstated and also functions to silence many individuals who are sexually abused. Those brave enough to speak out may face retaliation. After women detainees at the Krome immigration detention facility in Miami reported sexual abuse by staff, several of them wrote, “We are afraid….each time one of us is interviewed by investigating officers….[S]ome of the women who have given statements have either been transferred or deported to their countries.”

With immigrant detention (in its current form) a relatively modern phenomenon in the U.S., this is a new version of an old problem.

Go here to learn more about prison rape:

Go here to read the testimony of prison rape survivors:


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