Content note: This piece contains detailed descriptions of sexual assault.
Rodney Smith said the two men who cornered him on his first day in a Louisiana jail a decade ago were big. At age 23, he had been arrested for check fraud earlier that day. He recalled them towering over him. He tried to stand up, but one of them pushed him down. He pleaded with his eyes to the other men in the cell, but they either turned their backs or continued watching silently. When the first man exposed his genitals to Smith and demanded Smith perform oral sex on him, Smith said he did it because he just wanted to be left alone. But then more men approached him and demanded the same, one after the other.
“I blacked out, in a sense. I’m crying in my mind the whole time, but I’m not literally, bawling crying. But I know I’m tearing up, because I don’t want to do this, and I don’t want to be part of this. But what do I do in that situation?” Smith, who is using a pseudonym for safety reasons, told Rewire in a recent phone interview. A jail guard didn’t walk by the cell until after the assaults stopped, he said.
When Tarana Burke started the Me Too movement, she hoped it would elevate the voices of survivors of sexual abuse—especially the voices of women of color. Although Burke’s Me Too has molded into a viral movement and hashtag, made famous mostly by celebrities and those who have access to platforms like Twitter, the survivors whose abusers are actually facing consequences are still mostly white women with resources and power. Some women with privilege are attempting to be better allies to those often erased from these conversations, by putting money behind their words, but some members of marginalized groups, like people in prison who’ve experienced abuse while incarcerated, have no voice.
The public seems to care less about the stories of incarcerated survivors than others, as Victoria Law has reported, and does not work as hard to end their abuse or the normalization of abuse in prisons. The result is a culture of sexual violence so extreme that speaking out could put prison abuse survivors in serious danger. The mainstream Me Too movement as cultural effort falls short for them.
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Reporting sexual abuse can always put a survivor in danger, but in prison that threat is elevated because survivors are either detained alongside their abusers or their abuser is the one who holds the key to their cell.
“We’ve seen the power wielded by an abusive person like Harvey Weinstein,” said Jesse Lerner-Kinglake, communications director for Just Detention International, a nonprofit whose mission is to end sexual abuse in detention centers worldwide. “But for inmates, the stakes are raised, because even if they could participate in these hashtags, then their personal safety would be very much at risk.” Often that means their stories go untold and do not receive the kind of attention necessary for real change.
People Behind Bars Rely on Legislation That’s Loosely Enforced
To this day Smith, who is gay, is convinced that his sexuality made him a target. Research suggests that LGBTQ people have higher rates of assault than people who identify as straight.
An estimated 200,000 people held in United States prisons and jails every year face sexual abuse, according to the most recent Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) study released in 2013. Inmates who reported their sexual orientation as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or other faced abuse from other inmates at a rate ten times higher than inmates who identify as straight, according to the same BJS report. And the statistics get worse as marginalized demographics overlap: Of inmates with “serious psychological distress” who are non-heterosexual, 21 percent reported sexual abuse in prison, while 14.7 percent reported abuse in jail.
Smith thought the abuse in the holding cell of Orleans Parish Prison was over once a guard finally called his name, so he could be processed. He was moved to the receiving tier of the jail. In the back there are showers, and each inmate waits in line until it’s his turn to go in. But when Smith entered the shower, someone else followed behind him.
“He tells me specifically, just real hard and dry, he’s like, ‘Face the fucking wall. Don’t turn around,’” Smith said. “And he feels bigger now. He didn’t feel as big, but I remember him being gigantic. He was like a monster, almost.”
Smith recalled to Rewire that the man put his arm around his throat, told him that if he screamed he would break his neck, and then raped him. Smith stood in the shower for almost an hour after. When he left, the other inmates were laughing and smirking at him. “Because he came into the shower, I was owned by him,” Smith said. “I was now his property. He was my man, my husband … whatever you want to call it. And he made the decisions for me. I was for him.”
Shortly after the rape, Smith’s abuser had to leave the jail, so he sold Smith to another inmate for $20 of commissary, Smith said. Over the next eight months, Smith’s new “husband” forced him to clean, make both of their beds, fold his laundry, and always be available for sexual acts. He also used Smith to settle his basketball gambling debts. “Every time [the team would] lose, he would owe somebody, and guess what he would use? Me. He would use me and my services to pay somebody,” Smith said.
And if he said no to his so-called husband, Smith says he would be slapped, punched, or choked, and there would always be a threat of more or worse violence, which is why he didn’t report the abuse.
In 2003, President George W. Bush signed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), and the Department of Justice updated it with standards in 2012. Those standards outline ways prisons and jails can prevent, detect, and respond to sexual abuse. They include third-party reporting requirements, which are supposed to protect incarcerated people who are abused by staff from retaliation; mandatory access to rape crisis counseling and other mental health services; safe reporting guidelines, which seek to prevent the kind of physical violence Smith feared had he reported; staff training on sexual violence; and guidelines for investigating sexual abuse allegations, according to the Justice Department website. PREA also funded a number of nationwide studies on prison sexual abuse, which confirmed prior hypotheses that sex abuse in prison is endemic.
States can choose whether to comply with PREA: Since 2012, 48 states are either working toward compliance with PREA or they are fully compliant, according to Just Detention International. Two states, Utah and Arkansas, have rejected the act entirely. States that are working toward compliance can provide “assurances” of their progress; states that fail to file assurances or that reject PREA outright are subject to a 5 percent financial penalty in funding they receive from the Justice Department. In Utah, for example, rejecting PREA has cost the state $420,000 in Justice Department grants since 2014, according to the Standard-Examiner.
But Amy Fettig, deputy director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said 5 percent is a drop in the bucket for most states and doesn’t actually serve as a financial incentive. “Really, the only way to hold [these facilities] accountable is for private attorneys to sue them if they represent clients. [Legal action is] no way to enforce laws .… And many of the states have filed assurances with the Department of Justice that they are working towards compliance, but they are not yet there. And so far, nobody has been subject to a financial penalty.”
Lerner-Kinglake of Just Detention International said the assurances allow states to just “kick the can down the road” indefinitely, deciding for themselves how quickly they’d like to implement PREA, despite the fact that sexual abuse at prisons is still rampant. So, in 2016, Congress added a provision to PREA as part of the Justice For All Reauthorization Act that “sunsets,” or ends, the assurance option. By December 2022, states will no longer be able to issue assurances that they are working toward compliance with PREA to delay the financial penalty, though there will be “emergency assurances” available to governors who can certify that 90 percent of their facilities have been audited. Emergency assurances will give states another two years to comply and avoid the 5 percent funding penalty.
Because detention centers face little to no immediate threat of consequences for not complying with PREA, many problem facilities still persist. Fettig says PREA only requires governors to report the compliance status of state prisons, leaving county jails, small prisons, and juvenile jails to fall through the cracks. There are 3,163 local jails in the United States, holding approximately 731,570 inmates, according to a 2013 census study by the BJS.
Orleans Parish Prison, where Smith was detained and allegedly abused by other prisoners, is one of those jails. In September 2012, the Department of Justice intervened in a case filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of a number of inmates or former inmates at Orleans Parish against the parish’s Sheriff Marlin N. Gusman after an investigation at the prison found conditions that violated the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, according to public documents about the case.
Louisiana Department of Corrections Communications Director Ken Pastorick said Orleans Parish, as a county facility and not a state facility, has the option to hire an independent PREA auditor. Multiple calls to Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office spokesman Philip Stelly regarding Orleans Parish’s implementation of PREA and Smith’s allegations went unreturned.
Prisons and jails haven’t faced much public outrage for widespread sexual abuse problems partially because people just don’t know how bad things are. “I think a lot of myths and negative stereotypes flourish … because prisons are isolated—I think both geographically and kind of culturally,” Lerner-Kinglake said. “There’s an othering that happens with prisoners. And I think bringing prisoners into the conversation so that we see them as full people who are worthy and deserving of rights [is how we change culture].”
But changing culture—even outside of prisons—isn’t easy, and #MeToo has illuminated that. The movement has shown the extent of sexual abuse and harassment women face, and, for the most part, it’s accepted that those women don’t deserve that abuse. But those women who have become the face of the movement usually haven’t been charged with crimes. There’s an extra battle that prison abuse survivors face: The public thinks prisoners deserve what they get, and there’s a persistent belief that inmates do not have rights.
“In practice, the culture defines what these institutions actually take seriously,” Fettig said. “The fact that the vast majority of people in prison—whether they’re men or women—are poor people of color plays into how our criminal justice system operates at every single level. It plays into the fact that the larger public doesn’t pay attention to these issues, and doesn’t take them seriously.”
Prison Abuse Survivors Are Often Caught in a Cycle
The whitewashing of the public conversation of sexual abuse becomes even more clear in prisons and jails, where the most marginalized demographics overlap. Two-thirds of detained women are women of color, and 86 percent of women in jail report having experienced sexual violence in their lifetime, according to a 2016 study by the Vera Institute of Justice. About three-quarters of women in prison have experienced intimate-partner violence as adults, and 82 percent report experiencing severe physical or sexual abuse as children, according to the Correctional Association of New York.
Pamela Shifman, executive director of the girls’ and women’s rights organization the NoVo Foundation, says the public Me Too conversation, though important, is addressing the problem too late by focusing primarily on the sexual harassment and abuse of adult women. “What we know is that sexual assault and sexual harassment are rife for girls in particular … more than 60 percent of sexual assaults happen to girls under the age of 15,” Shifman said, also noting that a lot of that abuse happens in schools, though many people think of them as safe spaces. “It’s really important to start with girls in particular and to really change the power dynamics which make so many girls—and particularly girls of color—vulnerable.”
Shifman pointed out that Tarana Burke’s Me Too resulted from a conversation she had with a young girl who had been sexually abused. Now, instead of narrowing the Me Too conversation to just focus on adult women who have experienced harassment and abuse, “it’s important that we both expand it and deepen it,” Shifman said, to include young girls and incarcerated women, especially when the two are interconnected.
Nicole Wolfe told Rewire she was first sexually abused by a family member at just 4 years old. In her teen years, she says she was raped by boys who lived in her neighborhood. “[Abuse] was just systematic all through my life,” Wolfe said.
In 1997, Wolfe was convicted of the attempted murder of her ex-husband, and she served 17 years in prison starting in March 1997. She served the first three years of her sentence at the California Correctional Facility for Women (CCFW). In May 1997, she was assigned to work with one of the prison’s lieutenants, who she says began sexually abusing her. “It was happening at first once a week, and then two, three times a week, then four times a week, then almost every day. It was a nightmare,” Wolfe said.
Sundays were Wolfe’s visiting days. She said the lieutenant would wait for her at the program office, where she was required to go in order to see her visitors. “I remember him raping me before he’d let me through that gate, and I’d have to go to my visit, and I’d be pretending like nothing happened,” Wolfe recalled.
About six months later, Wolfe was waiting to see a psychologist in the medical building when a supervising nurse started talking to her. One day he said she could come to him for support if she needed, and then when he took her back to his office, he sexually assaulted her.
“To be able to get to me, he’d ‘ducket’ me, which is when they would send me a little slip that says you have an appointment, and if you don’t show up for a ducket, then you get written up,” Wolfe said. “He would ducket me over to the medical [ward] on Sundays when no one was there.” For the next six months, she said both the nurse and the lieutenant sexually assaulted her repeatedly.
One day when Wolfe had responded to one of the nurse’s duckets, an officer saw her in the medical department. Inmates don’t normally go to medical on Sunday, so the officer reported it. The prison launched a formal investigation, and Wolfe said she was sent to “administrative segregation,” or solitary confinement. When Wolfe asked the sergeant who took her to solitary what was going on, he said, “I don’t know, they said there’s a threat to the safety and security of the institution.”
“I ended up being there for 36 or 40 hours—not quite two days,” Wolfe said. “I cried the whole time.”
The nurse pleaded guilty to the charge of sex with a confined person, which cost him his job and his medical license, Wolfe said. After Wolfe told a psychologist about the lieutenant, the prison launched another investigation. That time, Wolfe said, “they locked me in a room for two to four hours, no food, no water, no bathroom. And they kept saying, ‘Just tell us it was consensual. We’ll let you out of here when you tell us it’s consensual.’ And then they’d say ‘Oh this didn’t happen, this didn’t really happen.’”
Wolfe asked the officials to strip search the lieutenant and use her descriptions of the kind of underwear he wears and other identifying characteristics on his body as proof of the abuse. “They said ‘No, he has rights,’” Wolfe said. “Well what about my rights?”
Wolfe doesn’t know the outcome of that investigation, and she said she suspects the lieutenant retired. When Rewire inquired about the lieutenant and the outcome of the investigation into Wolfe’s claims, Ike Dodson, public information officer at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said:
“CDCR maintains a zero tolerance for staff sexual misconduct. Allegations of staff sexual misconduct are thoroughly investigated. If the investigation proves there was wrongdoing, the employee may face disciplinary action and/or referral for criminal prosecution. We are unable to comment on specific allegations.”
Prison and jail staff who sexually abuse inmates rarely face consequences. A BJS report from 2014 shows that almost half of staff who were found to have committed sexual misconduct faced no legal action. This means that, even if survivors “muster sort of an unfathomable courage to” report staff abusers, “in the vast majority of cases, the investigation determines that it never happened,” Lerner-Kinglake said. The BJS report found that 74 percent of substantiated sexual misconduct incidents by staff were classified as “appeared to be willing” by investigators, even though sexual contact between staff and inmates is illegal. And, in substantiated incidents of staff sexual misconduct, 78 percent of staff perpetrators lost their jobs, 45 percent were referred to criminal prosecution, and 17 percent were allowed to keep their jobs and were reprimanded, disciplined, demoted, or transferred to another facility. “So the laws exist, but we are not holding accountable people whose salaries are paid for out of our tax dollars,” Lerner-Kinglake said.
Even though she entered prison as an abuse survivor, Wolfe said she never once received access to rape crisis services or counseling at CCFW. Now, partially thanks to Wolfe’s help drafting and editing PREA while she was incarcerated, that is supposed to be the exception, she said. But the quality of support for survivors of prison abuse, their access to safe reporting (which should not include solitary confinement), and impartial third-party investigations into staff misconduct are heavily dependent on the quality of the facility and how quickly states can implement PREA.
Incarcerated People Need an Avenue to Say “Me Too”
In order for the proper enforcement of PREA and for the condemnation of sexual abuse generally, a larger cultural shift is needed where people stop assuming that prisoners “deserve” what they get while they’re in prison. “You have to understand that most people in prison are there because they committed a crime. I committed my crime,” Wolfe said. “But while you’re in there, you need to be safe. And it’s not OK that you’ve become the victim of a crime.”
And to create that culture, Lerner-Kinglake of Just Detention International said, we have to acknowledge that sexual abuse in these facilities is a huge problem and then bring prisoners into the Me Too conversation, whether that’s by including them in media coverage or by publishing the letters of survivors who are still detained. But then the next step is for the public to demand accountability. In other words, the battle can’t only happen on social media.
Conversations about ending sexual abuse like Me Too won’t be complete without the voices of people who are abused while incarcerated, because their stories show that many people still believe sexual abuse is excusable and even justifiable in some cases. After Brock Turner was sentenced to six months in prison for sexually assaulting a woman behind a dumpster, Twitter users rallied around a common hope: that he would be raped or sexually assaulted while imprisoned as a form of retribution. Pop culture also uses prison rape as the punchline to any plot line where a character goes to jail. Take The Boondocks season 3 episode, “A Date With the Booty Warrior,” or 2015’s “Get Hard” with Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart, where Hart says, “There’s a 100 percent chance that you’re going to be somebody’s bitch,” while he makes sounds that are supposed to represent a prison rape. Until the public conversation about sexual violence actually condemns violence against anyone—even criminals who were themselves convicted of sexual abuse—that conversation will be ill-equipped to actually stop sexual violence.
Smith said he doesn’t remember the judge telling him during his sentencing that rape would be part of his punishment, but that he did leave not only having served more than ten years—he also left with nightmares and “abnormal ideals” about himself. “After the first night [in jail], I felt like I still had a chance … but after that shower? None of that mattered, nothing mattered, because I didn’t matter,” Smith said. “You see yourself, you feel the pain. I mean, I can feel him there. I can feel him there, sometimes even to this day. I can feel him there.”
Both Smith and Wolfe said they often think about the survivors who are still detained or who are still facing abuse. Their stories, Wolfe said, represent the cycles of abuse that require a movement like Me Too to exist in the first place. “My abuse led me to a desperate act, that led me to prison and put me at risk, and then I was abused again,” Wolfe said. “So it was a vicious circle, that I didn’t think I’d ever get out of, and then I did.”
But sexual abuse shouldn’t be a vicious cycle for anyone, including those who are incarcerated. The speed with which legislation like PREA are implemented and whether staff perpetrators are held accountable depends largely on public outrage at the stories of prison abuse survivors. They often can’t use Twitter, but their abuse and their pain exists every day. The fact that they can’t say Me Too shouldn’t alienate them from this cultural reckoning, and doing so would make the movement little more than a hashtag.