‘This Is Wrong’: The Hurdles Keeping Sexual Assault Survivors Behind Bars From Services

"There's a severe need inside, but there's also a severe need everywhere."

When providing services in men's facilities, for instance, advocates must combat stereotypes about men and sexual assault as well as ignorance about LGBTQ people, who are more at risk for rape and assault. Shutterstock

Jessica Seipel still remembers how intimidated she was the first time she entered a prison. “You go through a door and hear it slam behind you,” she told Rewire. “Then you go through another door and you hear that slam behind you.”

Seipel was entering the prison as a rape crisis counselor to provide support services and advocacy for a person incarcerated within. She reminded herself, “I’m going to be here for only a few hours. What does it mean for someone who is a survivor [who doesn’t get to leave] and who has no control over the lights, their clothes, [or] when they get up or go to bed?”

Nearly 4 percent of people in state and federal prisons and 3.2 percent of people in local jails reported sexual abuse while incarcerated between February 2011 and May 2012. For trans people, that percentage jumps to nearly 40 percent of those in state or federal prison and 27 percent in local jails. Those are the most recent statistics from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the data collection program of the U.S. Department of Justice. For many of these survivors, accessing support services to help address and heal from sexual violence can be difficult—exacerbated by shame, stigma and, often, officers’ and administrators’ refusal to acknowledge that sexual assault happens within their facilities.

Victim services for incarcerated survivors are supposed to replicate what’s available to people in the community. They include, for example, accompanying a survivor to a forensic exam and any investigatory exams. They also provide confidential follow-up services, such as counseling and support. But getting these services to jails and prisons is a challenge, particularly for service providers already stretched thin by underfunding and for jails and prisons in remote locations.

Seipel is now the senior program officer for Just Detention International, an organization working to end sexual abuse behind bars. She provides trainings for rape crisis centers and the jails, prisons, and detention centers in their areas on how to work together to provide care and support for people who have been sexually assaulted while incarcerated.

Seipel, who recently facilitated a training in Wyoming for rape crisis centers and administrators of the state’s five prisons, points out that many prisons around the country are in rural areas. Some centers may have only two or three staff members responsible for working with survivors, both in and out of prison, in a wide geographical region. Visiting a prison may take the entire day, from traveling to a remote location, waiting for clearance to enter, waiting for a security escort, waiting for the survivor to be brought from their housing unit, meeting with and counseling the person, and then traveling home. Programs that are already under-resourced may not be able to spare a staff member for an entire day. “There’s a severe need inside, but there’s also a severe need everywhere,” Seidel acknowledged.

In 2003, President George W. Bush signed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) into law, requiring prisons and jails that receive federal funding to adopt a zero-tolerance policy towards sexual violence behind bars. But the standards for PREA implementation weren’t released until nearly nine years later in 2012.

PREA requires jails, prisons, youth detention, and immigration detention facilities to provide victim services, including access to victim advocates from rape crisis centers and outside confidential support services. It also pushes these facilities to establish partnerships with community service providers. States that do not fully comply with PREA can lose 5 percent of their federal prison funding.

Some PREA grants pay for rape crisis services, including reimbursing outside providers. Only a small number of prisons and jails, however, have received this grant. Instead, local rape crisis centers must rely on funding through donations, fundraising, and federal grants from the Office of Violence Against Women. Such money is frequently already in demand from providing much needed services to rape survivors in the community.

In past years, advocates were unable to draw on Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) funding— federal funds disbursed to states to provide services to victims of any kinds of crime—to work with incarcerated survivors. That changed in August 2016 when the U.S. Department of Justice expanded VOCA funding, lifting that prohibition. This means that, for the time being, rape crisis centers and other victim services can now draw upon those previously unavailable funds to begin providing services to incarcerated survivors.

However, not every state has chosen to use VOCA funding for incarcerated survivors, leaving advocates to find money elsewhere.

Funding is only one challenge, though often a major one. When advocates and counselors make the trek to a jail or prison, they face institutional obstacles to providing services. They often must dispel the idea that the incarcerated survivor is being manipulative or fabricating assault charges, a notion that exists outside of prison as well.

When providing services in men’s facilities, for instance, advocates must combat stereotypes about men and sexual assault as well as ignorance about LGBTQ people, who are more at risk for rape and assault. A 2007 study found that two-thirds of people who identified as LGBTQ were sexually assaulted by another inmate during their incarceration, a rate 15 times higher than that of the overall population behind bars. But in meetings with administrators and staff, Siepel says, it’s not unusual to be asked, “What does transgender mean?” or to be told, “There are no trans women or gay men here.” She also notes that, in many facilities, staff are visibly uncomfortable with even saying the words “gay” or “transgender.”

If the accused assailant is a staff member, advocates might also have to fight to communicate with the survivor. Seipel has heard stories about advocates not being able to provide services for people who have named staff as their assailants, though she is quick to add that this is not true for every facility.

Under PREA, retaliation for reporting sexual abuse is prohibited—though that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t occur. In fact, “retaliation is common,” said Erica Gammill, prisoner advocate for the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault (TAASA), a state coalition of more than 80 rape crisis centers. Even with that many rape crisis centers, providing support services for assault survivors in more than 100 jails and prisons in the state can still be challenging. As of 2015, Texas had about 242,000 people in jails and prisons. Another 4,400 youth were in juvenile detention, which, under PREA, must also provide rape crisis counseling and advocacy services. Juvenile detention agencies can get PREA grants to fund programs that both prevent sexual abuse and ensure that outside support is available to survivors.

In addition, eliminating prison rape doesn’t seem to be on the top of the state’s agenda, even if it means losing federal dollars. In 2014, then-Gov. Rick Perry (R) announced that Texas would not comply with PREA standards, calling them “counterproductive and unnecessarily cumbersome and [a] costly regulatory mess.” The state was penalized approximately $800,000 in federal funds that year. In 2015, his successor, Gov. Greg Abbott (R), stated that, while the state had taken “significant steps” to eliminate prison rape, he could not certify that it was in full compliance with PREA.

Still, Texas continues to exclude services to victims behind bars from its disbursement of VOCA funding.

According to Gammill, retaliation against victims can take the form of physical beatings, gassings (or being pepper sprayed), shakedowns in which their belongings are damaged or destroyed, placement in solitary confinement, or transfer to housing units that are unsafe for them. “Guards and correctional staff have a lot of control over people’s lives,” she noted.

For advocates, this may mean that survivors are afraid to report staff sexual assault. If they do, hostile staff can hamper their ability to see and provide services to that particular survivor. Staff can also neglect to notify a survivor that they have an appointment with a rape crisis counselor.

Advocates must also navigate the byzantine labyrinth of facility rules, ranging from dress codes to prohibitions on everyday items like staples and paperclips. To make matters more confusing, different facilities have different rules and procedures, so what may be acceptable in one jail or prison is verboten in another.

Programs can provide services in other ways, such as providing counseling by phone or even by old-fashioned pen-and-paper letters. “While that’s not what we want to see, these are options for services that are small,” Seipel said. As a rape crisis advocate, she provided support through correspondence for over a year to Joe, a man who had been repeatedly raped while in a California prison. Those letters became a lifeline for Joe, who says his reports had been ignored by prison staff who kept him in the same cell as the man who raped him.

TAASA, meanwhile, receives approximately five letters a day from people who have been assaulted behind bars in Texas. Over half are from people who identify as LGBTQ; of those, half are trans women in men’s facilities. Gammill devotes one day each week to answering each letter. Most are from survivors who reported assault and, after receiving no response from the prison administration, are reaching out for help.

Sometimes Gammill connects them with counseling from rape crisis centers in the area. She has advocated for others to be moved to parts of the prison where they are less vulnerable to abuse. For two trans women, her efforts led to their being moved to Safekeeping, a specific housing area for trans and other vulnerable populations. Safekeeping, she clarified, is different from protective custody, which is a form of isolation in which a person is locked into a cell for 23 hours a day, ostensibly for their own protection. Instead, Safekeeping is generally a housing unit in which people can co-mingle with each other, attend programs, and have the same movements as people in general population.

Currently, Gammill is working with a gay man who had been sexually assaulted numerous times before prison administrators placed him in protective custody. There, she says, not only was he denied human contact, but his mental health needs were left unmet. The man wrote to numerous organizations, including TAASA, about his experiences and his needs. Now, Gammill is working with several of these organizations, including Just Detention International, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and the National Center for Trans Equality, to have him removed from the isolation of protective custody and provided with mental health treatment.

TAASA has also developed a correspondence toolkit for advocates interested in providing support to incarcerated survivors. So far, it has worked with three rape crisis centers in and around Dallas to start correspondence programs. At the National Sexual Assault Conference in June 2017, Gammill noted interest from organizations across the country in providing similar support via correspondence to survivors in far-flung jails and prisons.

Even getting the word out about these programs to survivors, however, can be difficult. Under PREA standards, jails and prisons must share information about sexual assault resources. But, Gammill notes, that information is often not publicly posted. Instead, a survivor must ask for that information, usually from the law library where the staff is often another incarcerated person. In addition, a survivor often feels uncomfortable requesting information with “sexual assault” in the title.

For counselors and advocates just beginning to offer services to survivors behind bars, Seipel points out that there are now many more resources available than when she first started. Just Detention International has an online list of resources, including webinars and guides for both advocates and survivors. She also recommended connecting with other organizations already providing services in the prison. When trying to work with administrators who don’t believe that sexual assault occurs in their facility, she recommends framing services as not only for survivors, but also for loved ones of people who have survived sexual abuse.

“Relative to the way things used to be, when virtually no prisoners got outside support, it’s amazing that some counseling services are available today,” said Jesse Lerner-Kinglake, communications director for Just Detention International. “But,” he cautioned, “far more needs to be done. The vast majority of incarcerated survivors simply aren’t getting helped. It will take a commitment from corrections, and more funding, to ensure that all survivors receive the quality crisis services that they need and deserve.”

“There’s a prevailing public belief that people in prison deserve what they get,” said Gammill. That belief is pervasive inside jails, prisons and detention facilities as well as among people with no connection to incarceration. “We need to come out and say, ‘This is wrong.'”