For People Behind Bars, Reporting Sexual Assault Leads to More Punishment
When Dr. Christine Blasey Ford broke a decades-long silence about nearly being violently raped by Brett Kavanaugh, now a Supreme Court nominee, her allegations were met with death threats. Her address was published, forcing her family to relocate; people followed her on freeways and attempted to enter her place of work. At the same time, her detractors questioned the legitimacy of her accusations, noting that she did not report the attempted rape. These criticisms are nothing new—countless survivors have faced similar challenges for not reporting assaults and attempted assaults. This is particularly true for incarcerated survivors, who know that reporting sexual abuse is more likely to result in more punishment for them—and little to no accountability for the person who harmed them.
When Carolee first entered the Texas prison system in 2016, she was shown a video explaining what to do if she were sexually assaulted. “The video did not show any difficulties and it made you feel comfortable and safe if you told,” Carolee recalled. One year later, however, she found out just how wrong the video was.
While in the shower, Carolee’s cellmate grabbed her breast. Carolee shrieked, her cellmate backed off, and nothing more happened. The next day, Carolee approached a prison officer, reported the assault and asked to be moved to another cell.
“After that, things just got absolutely ridiculous,” Carolee, who is still imprisoned in Texas and asked that her last name not be used, told Truthout. Staff did move her—to “segregation” (otherwise known as solitary confinement), where she spent 15 days locked in a cell by herself. “Then I was taken to an interrogation room where the Safe Prisons person asked me all these questions,” she said. “I told them it wasn’t that bad, she didn’t rape me or anything, I just felt uncomfortable being in the same room with her and I didn’t want her to try it again the next time we were alone in the shower. They came up with the assumption that I had made the entire thing up…. For filing a ‘false’ OPI [Offender Protection Investigation], I couldn’t go to commissary for 30 days.”
To make matters worse, her cellmate learned about Carolee’s report. Once Carolee was allowed out of segregation, her cellmate physically attacked her. Carolee fought back, staff tear-gassed both women, then placed them in segregation.
Looking back on the experience, Carolee concluded, “I never would have told had I known what process I would go through. They put me in seg to seclude me and interrogate me. Yes, it was supposed to be protective custody, but it ended up being an interrogation … I wanted no trouble. I just wanted to be moved discreetly.” To anyone else in a similar situation, “I would say, ‘Just keep your mouth shut and make up a lie instead to get moved.’ I definitely would have done it differently. When I was put in seg for the 15 days, I felt absolutely embarrassed. The other girls in seg found out from the [Prison Rape Elimination Act] sign on my door that I had reported sexual assault … I felt on display and judged. I felt like I was in trouble instead of being the victim.”
The use of solitary confinement as “protection” has long been reported by rape survivors in jails and prisons nationwide. In 1996, Human Rights Watch found that, in at least six states, incarcerated women were routinely placed in solitary after reporting sexual abuse by prison staff. Prisons claim this placement is for the survivor’s protection. More than two decades later, this remains one of the only national studies acknowledging the prevalence of placing survivors in solitary. But advocates, family members and people in prison report that this practice continues, discouraging many from reporting sexual abuse by either staff or, as Carolee’s experience demonstrates, other incarcerated people. In addition, many jails and prisons utilize solitary as “protection” for people who are visibly gay, lesbian or transgender.
Under the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act, or PREA, prisons and jails that receive federal money must adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward sexual violence. This means that prisons are supposed to discipline people, whether staff or incarcerated, who sexually harass, abuse or assault others; prisons are also required to protect those who are vulnerable to sexual violence. By the end of 2015, jails and prisons nationwide reported 24,661 allegations of sexual abuse, nearly triple the number in 2011. More than half (or 58 percent) of these allegations were against prison staff.
Blasey Ford’s treatment shows what women behind bars have long known to be true—sexual assault is not considered to actually have happened unless it has been reported. At the same time, they know that saying #MeToo rarely, if ever, stops the violence. Instead, it brings more problems and additional punishments, including being cut off from all human contact.
Isolation as Protection for People Seen as “Victim-Prone”
When Venus Williams, a 25-year-old trans woman incarcerated in east Arkansas, arrived at the state’s male prison in March 2010, she was immediately placed in segregation. Why? Because she informed staff that she was trans and, during her previous incarceration in 2007, had been caught having consensual sex with another incarcerated person. At the time, she was told that consensual sex does not exist in prison, was written up for violating the prison’s rule against sexual activity, and was placed in segregation until her release a year later. In 2010, when she re-entered the prison system on a parole revocation, staff labeled her “victim-prone” and placed her in segregation, where she has remained for the past eight years.
But isolation has not kept her safe. “The past eight years have been pure hell and full of verbal harassment, discrimination and physical assault by a correctional officer back in 2012,” the 33-year-old told Truthout in a series of letters. Any time she is taken out of her cell to the shower area, she is shackled, or placed in handcuffs and leg irons. “When I walk past inmates’ cells fully shackled to be escorted to shower, inmates throw urine on me, throw batteries, pieces of trash and soaps at me and the guards do nothing about it but laugh. The guards do not even try to protect me at all.”
Not only have staff failed to protect her from other incarcerated people on the unit, but they have also inflicted their own violence upon her. “Guards have scarred my ankles and wrists because they have placed leg and hand restraints on me too tight, to harm me. I have been maced because I refused to allow a male guard [to] strip search me and told him I was a woman and needed a female guard to conduct the search. The male guard laughed and maced me multiple times until I couldn’t stand my skin burning no more. I was forced to submit to a strip search. And I cried from humiliation [throughout] the whole search.”
Isolation as a form of protection isn’t limited to Arkansas. In California, the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department has been placing LGBTQ people in a unit called the “Alternative Lifestyle Tank.” Since 2012, nearly 600 people had been locked in their cells 23 hours each day. They were not allowed to attend the jail’s job training, education, drug rehabilitation, religious or community re-entry programs. Instead, during their one hour out of cell, they were allowed only to shower, make a phone call or watch television. In August 2018, the sheriff’s department agreed to a settlement in which it provided LGBTQ people with expanded housing options, access to programs, additional staff training on LGBTQ safety, and a million-dollar payment to be split among those who had been isolated in the Alternative Lifestyle Tank.
In New York City, the Department of Correction started tracking the initial housing placements of the trans, gender-nonconforming and intersex individuals in its jail system. According to figures provided by the Board of Correction, the city agency tasked with monitoring jail conditions, from November 2017 to May 2018, 49 trans women and three trans men were in the city’s jails. Of those, the Department recorded 16 movements to its Trans Housing Unit, a 26-bed unit for trans women that, according to advocates, is rarely full. The Department reported nearly the same number of placements (15) in Protective Custody, a form of isolation in which people spend up to 23 hours each day locked in their cell, to “protect” them from physical and sexual violence.
According to the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, nearly 40 percent of trans people in state and federal prisons and 26 percent in local jails reported sexual victimization behind bars—a rate ten times higher than their cisgender counterparts.
How often is isolation utilized with the justification of protection against sexual violence? It’s fairly common, says Jesse Lerner-Kinglake of Just Detention International, an organization working to end sexual abuse behind bars. Just Detention International receives thousands of letters from people who have been sexually abused in jails and prisons across the country.
Lerner-Kinglake noted that a 2015 Bureau of Justice Statistics report on restrictive housing (another term used for isolation) found that lesbian, gay and bisexual people are more likely to be placed in solitary than their heterosexual counterparts. (The report makes no mention of trans people.) People with mental illnesses are also isolated at a higher rate. These populations are also more likely to be targeted for sexual abuse within jails and prisons.
“We hear disproportionately from trans people because the levels of violence against them are disproportionately high,” Lerner-Kinglake told Truthout.
Punished for Telling the Truth
This has been true for Strawberry Hampton, a trans woman incarcerated in Illinois men’s prisons. But in her case, staff have been the main perpetrators of sexual violence—and isolation has been used to punish her for speaking out. As reported earlier, Hampton was repeatedly verbally and sexually assaulted by prison staff in three different Illinois prisons. When she filed a complaint, staff placed her in solitary. She was transferred to another men’s prison, where she endured not only physical violence and sexual harassment by staff, but sexual abuse and threats by another incarcerated person who threatened to rape her. When she reported his behavior, he was placed in a segregation cell close to hers. He told Hampton that he was in segregation for possessing contraband, not for his threats against her, and that prison officials had dropped the disciplinary ticket against him because staff “does not like her and does not want to protect her.”
Though she has since been transferred to Dixon Correctional Center, another (men’s) prison, Hampton is still in segregation. “I’m not gonna be released until December 26, 2018,” she wrote in a recent letter to Truthout. “That means I been in seg for two years.”
Being in near-constant isolation has taken its toll. In a series of letters to Truthout, Hampton described feeling “emotional depression and sad.” She added that being held in isolation “makes you have panic attacks and anxiety attack. It makes your mind unstable & scared.”
The Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) “uses seg to punish people who are victimized or beaten, raped or speaking out against IDOC,” she wrote. “They punish me for being victimized and telling the truth. They try to silence me from exposing the truth.”
Hampton has attempted suicide three times; each time, staff locked her in a crisis cell, or another type of isolation cell where she was given nothing except a “suicide-proof” smock to wear, and constantly monitored. Later, she was returned to segregation.
“Strawberry’s experience is incredibly common,” noted Sheila Bedi, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center which is representing Hampton. “It reflects the truths that these kinds of abuses are endemic to prison.”
In July 2018, Hampton, along with the MacArthur Justice Center and the Uptown People’s Law Center, filed another suit against the Illinois Department of Corrections for the continuing physical and sexual assaults she has experienced at the hands of both staff and other incarcerated people. The suit demands that Hampton be moved to a women’s prison, a form of emergency relief that Hampton has been requesting since being sexually assaulted at Pinckneyville. “Everyday she’s literally scared for her life,” Bedi told Truthout. “She is a woman in a men’s prison. Every day, she’s worried about her safety—predominantly from staff, but also from other incarcerated men who know that staff won’t do anything to protect her.”
Hampton’s lawsuit points to a 2016 Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) report, although 28 trans women are incarcerated in Illinois’s men’s prisons, no trans women are currently in its two women’s prisons. This means that, if Hampton’s suit is successful, her transfer would be one of the first times Illinois assigned a trans woman to a female prison.
In May 2018, Connecticut became the first state to pass a law requiring that trans people be incarcerated according to their gender identity. The law, which took effect on July 1, also requires that trans people be searched by corrections officers who match their gender identity, be addressed with proper pronouns, and be guaranteed access to clothing and toiletries that match their gender identity. But this law only applies if the incarcerated person has either been diagnosed with gender dysphoria, or had their gender marker legally changed. In addition, this “presumptive placement” can be changed if prison administrators determine that their placement could create problems at a particular prison. The Connecticut Department of Correction did not respond to queries about how the policy has been implemented.
On September 11, 2018, Hampton appeared on a video screen before a federal court judge to testify about her experiences. Two other incarcerated people corroborated her stories of violence and another trans woman testified about her own experiences with physical and sexual violence while incarcerated in a men’s prison. In contrast, Bedi noted, the witnesses for the Department of Corrections continually used male pronouns for Hampton and argued that, because she is incarcerated in a men’s prison, she is a man.
“Given these attitudes, she will never be safe in a men’s prison,” Bedi said.
Meanwhile, Hampton remains in segregation in a men’s prison. “Hopefully everything [will] go right,” she wrote from inside her segregation cell.
Victoria Law is a freelance journalist who focuses on the intersections of incarceration, gender and resistance. Her first book, Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women, examines organizing in women's jails and prisons across the country. She writes regularly for Truthout and is a contributor to the anthology Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect? Her next book, co-written with Maya Schenwar, critically examines proposed 'alternatives' to incarceration and explores creative and far-reaching solutions to truly end mass incarceration. She is also the proud parent of a New York City high school student. Find more of her work at victorialaw.net.
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