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‘It’s an Emergency’: Tens of Thousands of Incarcerated People are Sexually Assaulted Each Year

Cynthia Alvarado was raped in jail before she was sentenced to life in prison for a murder she did not commit. Now that her sentence has been overturned, Alvarado is fighting for women like her.

A photo of Cynthia Alvarado
Cynthia Alvarado Photo by Val Kiebala

When Cynthia Alvarado learned that her life sentence had been overturned during her 12th year of incarceration at the State Correctional Institution (SCI) Muncy, in Pennsylvania, it was more than a reprieve; it was a resurrection.

“At that moment, I felt like I was alive,” she said in an interview with The Appeal. “I was so dead in there. I didn’t realize how dead I was until I got that news, because a part of me had to die in there to survive.”

During those 11 years and five months, Cynthia Alvarado didn’t just lose her freedom. She survived brutality, isolation, and sexual assault. Like thousands of other women who have been raped and sexually abused while behind bars, Cynthia Alvarado found herself powerless, abandoned by the system, stymied by the law, and, she said, largely ignored by the #MeToo movement, which drew attention to the abuse of women in the workplace, but not in prisons and jails.

Cynthia Alvarado, a 27-year-old mother of two at the time of her arrest, had been sentenced to life without parole in 2010 on charges of second-degree murder. On the day of the crime, Oct. 21, 2008, Cynthia Alvarado had driven to Fairhill Square Park, in North Philadelphia, with her cousin Oscar Alvarado, in search of Xanax. That same afternoon, Oscar killed a woman named Marta Martinez.

The Philadelphia Police Department tells one account of what happened that day, and Cynthia Alvarado tells another. One absolute fact in both accounts, however, is that Cynthia Alvarado never killed anyone.

Despite this, Cynthia Alvarado was sentenced to die in prison under Pennsylvania’s felony murder statute. If a death occurs during the commission of any felony in Pennsylvania, all participants in the felony can be found guilty of second-degree murder, which carries a mandatory sentence of life without parole, even if they had no role in the actual killing.

While awaiting her trial, Cynthia Alvarado spent about a year and a half at Riverside Correctional Facility, a county jail on the north side of Philadelphia. Oscar was held in an adjacent jail, but on Thanksgiving Day in 2008, he escaped and was on the run for 18 days.

That’s when the guards’ wrath turned on Cynthia Alvarado. Cynthia Alvarado told The Appeal that guards at Riverside tugged on her chains, punched her in the stomach, and ripped up pictures of her daughter. Then came eight months of solitary confinement. Then came the rape. He was wearing his City of Philadelphia correctional officer’s uniform, and she was in her baggy, blue prison jumpsuit. It happened in a closet.

“There were no officers there, it was just him on the pod and he was able to watch all the cameras,” Cynthia Alvarado said. “So he knew exactly what he was doing. He was a predator. What I found out later was that he was doing this to a lot of girls.”

When reached for comment, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia Department of Prisons (PDP) told The Appeal that what happened to Cynthia Alvarado predates Blanche Carney’s tenure as commissioner of the PDP.

“The PDP does not have a record of Ms. Alvarado’s allegations,” a spokesperson said. “However, we acknowledge and are empathic towards Ms. Alvarado’s experience during her incarceration…The PDP does not tolerate any form of sexual harassment or abuse. We strongly advise all incarcerated people who have experienced sexual abuse or harassment to immediately file a PREA complaint.”

Predators with Power

Cynthia Alvarado had no real options for legal recourse while she was incarcerated.

“Who was I going to tell?” Cynthia Alvarado said. “The same people that were oppressing me? The same people that had the keys to my cell?”

The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), the first federal piece of legislation that created standards to combat sexual assault in prison, was signed into law by George W. Bush in 2003. Philadelphia’s jails did not adopt PREA-compliant policies until 2015.

In a piece published in the Yale Law Journal in 2013, Elizabeth Reid, a woman who had been incarcerated in Washington state, told her own story of being sexually assaulted by a guard—and made it clear how difficult it is to hold abusers accountable. “The charges are always ‘unfounded,’” Reid wrote, meaning they were deemed to be false or baseless by the prison administration. “The victim is humiliated and then discredited. We cannot win if we come forward.”

Incarcerated people are often treated as though they have no credibility when it comes to their own bodies, even when they are suffering from clear and legitimate health issues. Staff at a Texas jail dismissed a pregnant woman when she said she was experiencing contractions, forcing her to give birth in a holding cell known as the “cage.” A man in Illinois had to have his leg amputated after prison staff refused to take his medical needs seriously and instead allowed blisters on his feet to fester. And time and again, incarcerated people suffering from mental illness have been ignored when they expressed a desire to hurt themselves and have gone on to commit suicide as a result. Even outside of prisons, people who report a sexual assault are often not taken seriously, so it should come as no surprise that incarcerated people are even more likely to be dismissed.

At SCI Muncy, there are two options to report rape: verbally reporting to a staff member or submitting a written report to the prison administration. The latest PREA report from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PADOC) disclosed that people held at SCI Muncy reported 32 allegations of sexual misconduct or sexual harassment by prison staff in 2020. Of those claims, zero were found “substantiated,” meaning an investigation found enough evidence to determine that the incident occurred; nine were found “unsubstantiated,” meaning an investigation did not find enough evidence to determine whether the allegation was true; and 23 were “unfounded,” meaning that an investigation determined that the incident did not take place. In 2019, women at Muncy came forward to report 43 incidents of staff sexual misconduct or harassment, and, again, the PADOC ruled none of their claims to be “substantiated.” This means that in the last two reported PREA cycles, none of the women who came forward about sexual abuse at Muncy were believed.

There is no PREA report for Philadelphia county jails available on the Philadelphia Department of Prisons website.

Reporting rape in prison often leads to punishment for the victim and not for the perpetrator. It can even lead to more prison time. Reid’s assault happened during a work-release program, where a guard could easily get someone sent back to prison just by saying they had violated a rule. Cynthia Alvarado was preparing for trial when she was raped. She feared that the prosecution might find a way to blame her for the incident and use it against her in court.

Reporting rape in prison can also get you sent to solitary confinement. Cynthia Alvarado had just been released from eight months in the hole when she was sexually assaulted, and going back to solitary was the last thing she wanted.

“They just put me in a room. They locked the door. And all I could think about, no lie, was ending my life,” Cynthia Alvarado said. “A voice telling me, ‘Just do it, just do it,’ and I just kept fighting it and fighting it and fighting it. But when I got upstate and I saw how many women ended their life in solitary, I knew that those voices were real.”

Guards in prison hold the key not only to incarcerated people’s cells but also to their so-called privileges, such as phone time with family members, visitation schedules, commissary access, work programs, education programs, mental health resources, and book and library access. “Our phone calls are monitored,” Cynthia Alvarado explained. “If you’re talking about a guard on the phone, you don’t think they’re gonna hang up? You really can’t say shit.”

Elizabeth Reid waited two weeks after she returned home after finishing the work-release program to report the rape. “Maybe, I thought, if I could just get to my release, then I could report it to the police. The real police,” Reid wrote. After she’d had two humiliating interviews with the police, however, they stopped answering her calls.

Reid had even provided evidence. She told them about marks on the guard’s legs that could only be seen if he wasn’t wearing pants. It didn’t matter. There was no real investigation. When the guard denied the assault over the phone, that was the end.

“As soon as they realized that I’d been an inmate on work release,” she wrote, “the skepticism of what I’d told them became evident on their faces.”

A photo of Cynthia Alvarado
Cynthia Alvarado Photo by Val Kiebala

Women Silenced Behind Prison Walls

For incarcerated women, sexual assault often comes on top of a long history of abuse. More than 90 percent of incarcerated women experienced sexual assault or physical trauma before their incarceration, according to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Unaddressed trauma is often what leads people into the criminal legal system in the first place. Numerous studies have linked exposure to trauma with the perpetration of crime.

Cynthia Alvarado grew up in a home plagued by domestic violence. She started running away when she was 12 or 13 years old. And when she was 25 years old, she fell into an opioid addiction after a car accident killed her uncle and nearly paralyzed her.

“Not dealing with that trauma is what led me to this pill spot to buy drugs” on the day of the murder, she said.

Cynthia Alvarado returned home after being released from prison on March 11, 2020. Her sentence was overturned based on a due-process violation during the trial. The violation stemmed from a misleading response the court gave to a question from the jury regarding accomplice liability—suggesting that someone can be found guilty of aiding in a crime even without intent to do so. Cynthia Alvarado won through a habeas corpus petition, which challenges the legality of someone’s confinement. Fewer than one percent of habeas corpus petitions are successful.

Nationwide, about 200,000 women remain locked behind bars and vulnerable to sexual assault with little to no recourse. In Pennsylvania, about 200 of the 2,000 women held in prison are serving life sentences, which means they have been left to die in prison.

In the past 40 years, the number of incarcerated women in the U.S. has increased by more than 700 percent—double the growth rate for incarcerated men, according to the Sentencing Project. In 2019, African American women were imprisoned at a rate 1.7 times greater than white women, and African American girls are three times more likely than white girls to be incarcerated. Native girls are more than four times as likely.

Between 2013 and 2018, the number of reports of sexual abuse in prisons and jails nationwide more than doubled, from approximately 13,500 to 28,000, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. This number does not necessarily reflect an increase in sexual assaults but likely indicates that mechanisms for reporting have been used.

While it is good that more people are using the reporting mechanisms, Linda McFarlane, the executive director of Just Detention International, a human rights organization that aims to end the sexual abuse of incarcerated people, condemns the low rate of substantiation for claims of sexual assault in youth and adult prisons. “What corrections officials are saying, essentially, is that in completely locked detention facilities, where they monitor and control every person’s movements, they can’t determine whether abuse has happened,” McFarlane said. “And, worse, when they can make a determination, they conclude the report was false.”

“People are bravely stepping forward to report sexual abuse, only to be failed by the people in charge of their safety,” McFarlane said.

“It’s an Emergency”

Across the country, there are people fighting for incarcerated women. A group in Pittsburgh called Let’s Get Free, dedicated to the rights of women and transgender people in prison, was founded by a group of women in 2013 during One Billion Rising, a global day of action to end violence against women.

For the event, etta cetera, the co-founder of Let’s Get Free, collaborated with incarcerated women to amplify their voices through an art installation. “The stories of five women were highlighted in a life-size solitary confinement cell, all of whom were women criminalized for defending themselves against sexual violence or racial violence,” cetera said. For nearly a decade now, Let’s Get Free has been challenging mass incarceration by building relationships, hosting workshops, conducting media work, pushing for policy changes, and hosting an annual art show featuring artists inside and outside of prison.

cetera also works for Pittsburgh Action Against Rape, which provides free resources and counseling for people who have experienced sexual assault. She has received calls from people experiencing sexual assault, including people in prison reporting PREA claims.

“It’s an emergency,” cetera said, referring to the epidemic of sexual violence. “One thing that COVID taught us is that there can be enormous sweeping changes to institutions in under a month. …What if the crisis we prioritize is not COVID but sexual violence?”

The National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls has been shining a light on this crisis for more than a decade. The organization, founded inside the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut, in 2010, aims to end the incarceration of women and girls. And in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) is also advocating for incarcerated women. CCWP was formed in 1995 following a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of women held in two California prisons. The lawsuit claimed that the state had violated the women’s constitutional rights by denying them medical care. According to the lawsuit, one woman was told by prison staff, “No one had ever died from swelling,” when she was experiencing severe edema in her legs, excessive menstrual bleeding, and large blood clots. She was eventually diagnosed with cancer and died nine months later.

Incarcerated women still face the same neglect today. Cynthia Alvarado recently reconnected with a former cellmate, Rose Dinkins, who is 50 years into a life sentence. Dinkins told Cynthia Alvarado that while the visiting rooms in men’s prisons are often filled with sisters, wives, mothers, and grandmothers on holidays, the visiting rooms in women’s prisons are empty.

“It makes me feel forgotten and disrespected,” Dinkins said. “They treat us any kind of way in here. They do what they wanna do. And there’s nothing you can do about it. … It’s like we’re excluded from the conversation. It’s like we don’t exist.”

Not only do prisons fail to protect the human rights of incarcerated people, they are not equipped to heal the unaddressed trauma that women—particularly poor women of color—face in society. That trauma is compounded when victims of sexual assault in prisons have no recourse against their assailants. In order for meaningful change to reach these victims, guards must be stripped of impunity.

Now that she has returned home, Cynthia Alvarado fights for women like Dinkins who are serving death-by-incarceration sentences, trying to help them get another chance at freedom. She says more of today’s feminists need to step up and support incarcerated women.

“I’m calling on the #MeToo movement to bring awareness to the women that are being raped in prison,” Cynthia Alvarado said. “I would invite you ladies to look at the women inside who are oppressed. We have nobody.”