Spotlights like this one provide original commentary and analysis on pressing criminal justice issues of the day. You can read them each day in our newsletter, The Daily Appeal.
Two years ago, the executive director of Just Detention International, an organization whose mission is to end sexual assault in jails and prisons, wrote in an opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times: “We simply can’t allow government officials to continue raping those in their custody.”
An imperative so clear, and a problem so shameful. The government officials in question: jail and prison employees across the United States.
The commentary, by Lavissa Stannow, was written nearly 15 years after the enactment of the Prison Rape Elimination Act. The promise of that legislation’s name has not been met. Prisons and jails in the United States continue to be sites of widespread sexual abuse and violence. And, as Stannow’s piece reflected, much of it is perpetrated by government employees.
Stannow was writing in late 2017, after the #MeToo movement had gained force. She wrote that the experiences of women sexually abused in prisons and jails “grimly echo the recent revelations about Hollywood and the media. The dynamic of the domineering, abusive man whose decisions can destroy your life is familiar to women everywhere, whether in Hollywood or in prison.”
Prison rape is a longstanding emergency, affecting incarcerated men and women. The people most vulnerable to sexual violence are people with mental health concerns; trans, gay, and lesbian people; and young people. Rape everywhere is underreported, even more so by people in carceral settings, where one’s rapist may be one’s captor. But incarcerated women are 30 times more likely to be raped than women who are not incarcerated, according to figures cited by The Nation in a 2015 article. Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates for 2011, based on anonymous surveys of incarcerated people, put the number of people sexually assaulted in U.S. jails and prisons at over 200,000. Incarcerated people In 2015, Just Detention International noted last year, made over 24,000 formal allegations of sexual assaults in jails and prisons, the highest number to date. Over half of the allegations (more than 58 percent) were claims that prison staff “victimized” incarcerated people.
Last week, Seven Days, a Vermont newspaper, published a report on allegations of rape and sexual misconduct by corrections officers at the state’s only women’s prison. Since 2011, officers at Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility sexually abused incarcerated women. Some officers, and other employees of the department, also continued to target women long after they were released.
Since Seven Days’s reporting, there have been several responses from government actors. These have included moving the facility under the Department of Human Services, actions against individual officers, and a request for a federal investigation. Advocates have emphasized that the issues that need to be addressed are systemic and include incarceration itself.
Karen Tronsgard-Scott of the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, told Seven Days that the state needs to address a system that simply “moves women in and out and in and out of the facility.” She pointed out that most women at Chittenden Regional come with histories of substance use disorders and that as many as 80 percent of them were victims of sexual violence before they were incarcerated.
At least one Vermont official spoke of freeing women from the prison where the violence took place. Chittenden County’s chief prosecutor, Sarah George, told Seven Days that she would be reviewing the sentences of all 20 people in Chittenden Regional who were prosecuted by her office to determine whether they can be released.
George said it was her responsibility to take action, reported Seven Days, “because the women in question are her constituents—and she worries they are in danger.”
“If this was any facility other than a prison, people would be rioting over this. Nobody would stand for this,” she said. “Hopefully that’s what happens anyway.”
This response is unusual for a few reasons. First, George recognizes her office’s responsibility. For decades, prosecutors in the U.S. have sent people to jails and prisons in numbers and for lengths of time that are historical and international outliers. In doing so, they consigned millions of people to dangerous institutions.
Despite their reliance on prisons and jails, prosecutors were allowed to remain largely oblivious of and indifferent to what happens inside these facilities. No prosecutor would argue that rape is part of a just system’s response to wrongdoing. But is there a single prosecutor who can guarantee that someone committed to a jail or prison upon their request will not be sexually abused?
(In an interview with The Appeal: Political Report in August, George said she instructed all staff and prosecutors in her office to visit a state prison. Thirty-nine chief prosecutors have now made the same commitment.)
Second, in expressing concern about the well-being of her incarcerated constituents, George turned not to a carceral response, but a decarceral one. Her response to this failure of the criminal legal system was not to simply call for punishment for the individual officers but to think about how to take responsibility for the women her office sent there. The solution to a crisis of violence by corrections officers should not be to repose more faith in these institutions—it should be to free people from them.
It remains to be seen what conclusions George will reach after her review, whether she will seek anyone’s release, and whether other actors (namely judges) will share her sense of urgency if she does.
In 2017, Natasha Lennard reported for The Intercept on the rampant sexual violence in prisons. In 2016, she wrote, “a former prison warden and member of the New York City Board of Correction, Gerard Bryant, publicly stated, ‘As long as we are going to have prisons, we are going to have sexual abuse in prisons. That’s the reality.’”
Lennard reflects that “it might be the sort of sentiment that groups like Just Detention International are working tirelessly against; it could promote apathy by presenting a problem as truly intractable.” But the comment “offered an inadvertent recognition that the patriarchal, structural oppressions informing prison life are more inherent than incidental.” Victoria Law, the author of “Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women” (and an Appeal contributor), told Lennard, “If we want to think about this problem holistically, one way to do it is to reduce the number of people sent to prisons and detention centers in the first place.”