When the story broke about a massive power outage at Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC), I was horrified. In the dead of winter, more than 1,600 inmates went nearly a week without light, heat, or hot water.
It came as no surprise to see MDC in the headlines. The prison has long been on JDI’s radar for its rampant staff sexual abuse. Worse still, two prison audits failed to detect any red flags — an astonishing failure of oversight, which I highlighted in a Washington Post op-ed.
The conditions inside MDC are an indictment of the people running it. When prison leaders can’t keep the heat on, let alone protect the people in their custody from rape, it is a fundamental failure. At the same time, the scandals at MDC have given me reason to feel hopeful. After the power went out, family members of MDC prisoners protested outside the facility; their efforts got the heat and hot water turned back on and sparked a federal investigation. And when JDI raised the alarm over the lack of proper monitoring at MDC, it helped us secure a law to improve oversight of detention facilities.
The lesson is that it is possible to make a difference in the lives of prisoners. JDI will always stand up for the rights of people who are locked up — and we know that you will, too.
In this heated political climate, JDI secured the passage of two laws that will make detention facilities safer
Prisoner rape is an unacceptable violation of human rights. Period. This is one of the rare truths on which Democrats and Republicans agree. And yet, in this time of shutdowns and non-stop partisan feuding, to reach consensus is no sure thing.
So it counted as a major breakthrough when, in December, JDI helped push a historic criminal justice bill through a bitterly divided Congress. Called the First Step Act, the new law will lead to dramatic improvements in the way prisoners, especially women, are treated. Under the law, federal women’s prisons now have to provide free sanitary items and can no longer shackle inmates who are pregnant.
JDI advocated for these reforms because women routinely tell us about the degrading conditions behinds bars. When women are forced to beg for tampons or visit the ob-gyn in shackles and cuffs, it’s a violation of their basic dignity. Even worse, by giving abusive staff leverage over inmates, these practices can also be a recipe for sexual assault. Under the First Step Act, prisons will not only have to supply basic hygiene items, but they must do so for free, so that no woman is ever left to choose between calling a loved one or using a clean pad.
The First Step Act recognizes the vital role of trauma-informed programs behind bars. Too often, criminal justice reform has focused exclusively on helping people after their release. Yet the vast majority of people in detention have experienced significant trauma — poverty, violence, sexual abuse, and more. As we have seen time and time again, any effort to ensure a smooth reentry will be futile if we do not provide ways for people in detention to develop healthy coping skills. Now, many thousands more prisoners will receive the help they need and deserve.
The passage of the First Step Act comes on the heels of another major human rights victory on Capitol Hill. In October, the Parole Commission Extension Act was signed into law. While this legislation may sound irrelevant to our work fighting prisoner rape, it has the potential to improve dramatically the system of prison oversight.
Over the past year, with the help of survivors who shared their stories, JDI has exposed how prison auditors have failed to detect problems in unsafe facilities. We placed op-eds in the Washington Post and the New York Times that highlighted some of the most egregious examples of staff sexually abusing inmates in facilities, even as auditors declared they were safe. Yet shaming bad auditors isn’t enough. Working directly with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, we crafted legislation to address the problem.
Our approach paid off — the Parole Commission Extension Act includes the new audit provisions that JDI fought for. Now, the people who conduct facility audits will be held to far stricter standards — and those who fail to do a good job will be barred from doing any more audits. No more turning a blind eye to sexual abuse.
As with every JDI success in the fight against prisoner rape, these two laws would not have happened without the courage of survivors who speak out about the brutal realities of life in prison. Survivors’ testimony made it clear that new legislation was urgently needed to tackle chronic deprivation and weak oversight.
These victories are also a credit to the bold support of people like you, who are willing to stand up for human rights.
One day in 2014, toward the end of his shift as an inmate janitor, Nathan Jones saw an item on the prison bulletin board that filled him with optimism. It was a notice explaining that his Wyoming prison would soon be audited on its efforts to keep inmates safe from sexual abuse. Any prisoner could meet with the auditor, and their conversations would be kept confidential.
Several of Nathan’s friends at the prison were being abused, and none felt comfortable speaking out. A few years earlier, Nathan himself had been sexually assaulted by a staff member while at a different facility.
Nathan arranged to speak with the auditor, and felt hopeful that the meeting would help put a stop to the rampant sexual assaults and harassment. “I believed this was my chance, finally, to have my voice heard,” he recalled.
But Nathan never got that chance. His meeting with the auditor was not held somewhere private, but in a room adjacent to the Associate Warden’s office. The door to the room was left wide open, and staff were within earshot of everything that was said. So Nathan kept quiet.
Nathan’s experience is not uncommon. JDI has learned of many instances of auditors who failed to conduct robust oversight — and who left prisoners in danger. In response, we helped pass the Parole Commission Extension Act, a law that calls on auditors to adhere to strict guidelines on how to do proper assessments, including conducting interviews in a “safe space where inmates can freely discuss their experiences at and perspectives of the facility.”
Nathan, who was released in 2016 and recently joined JDI’s Survivor Council, is confident that the new law will make a difference.
“When I was locked up, I was denied the chance to speak openly with someone who had the ability to make my life and the lives of others better. But that’s going to change, and I’m thrilled.”
For many years, the name Julia Tutwiler Prison was practically synonymous with sexual violence. Staff preyed on women with a staggering frequency; per a government report, at least a third of all Tutwiler staff had committed sexual assault.
The prison’s problems were the result of leadership’s refusal to take seriously the concerns of the women in their care and to treat them with dignity. Appallingly, Tutwiler’s inmates were often denied basic necessities like tampons and toilet paper. The scarcity of hygiene products gave abusers on staff nearly unlimited power. In a number of cases, women were forced to “trade” sex in exchange for tampons.
Women at many other prisons have told us that tampons, pads, and toilet paper are held under lock and key. Not surprisingly, these are also prisons where sexual abuse flourishes. Because of the direct link between deprivation and abuse — and because unfettered access to tampons, pads, and toilet paper is a matter of basic dignity — JDI advocated for the First Step Act, which includes a provision calling on prisons to provide the people in their care with free sanitary products. When the First Step Act was signed into law, in December, it represented a major victory for the rights of women in prison.
For proof that free tampons and pads can lead to safer prisons, one need look no further than Tutwiler. Prompted by a federal civil rights investigation, Tutwiler began giving its prisoners unrestricted access to sanitary items in 2015.
“Tutwiler was once an example of how not to run a facility,” explained Julie Abbate, JDI’s National Advocacy Director, who, in her previous job at the Department of Justice, ran a civil rights investigation into abuses at the prison.
“Today, Tutwiler is dramatically safer and women have a measure of dignity that had been denied to them before. These improvements are directly related to an end to the pointless and demeaning limits on tampons and pads,” she said.
Now that we have the First Step Act, women in prisons nationwide will see their lives improve, too.
Thomas Yellow Boy doesn’t fit the profile of a stereotypical youth detention officer. When Thomas talks about working at the Wanbli Wiconi Tipi Youth Wellness and Renewal Center — a tribal juvenile detention facility in South Dakota — he doesn’t mention security cameras or perimeter fencing. Instead, he’ll tell you about the vegetable garden the kids tend to, or the facility’s sweat lodge.
“These are bright, talented kids who lost their way,” explained Thomas, who, as the facility’s Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) Coordinator, is tasked with keeping the youth safe. “My job is to provide a supportive and caring environment, so that they can get their lives back on track.”
Wanbli Wiconi Tipi is run by the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, a branch of the Lakota people. The facility has long been a safe haven for kids in a community that has been besieged by poverty, addiction, and other social ills stemming from many decades of persecution. The facility’s stellar track record can be chalked up to tribal leaders, who leap at any opportunity to give the kids in their custody a chance to flourish.
When the government released the PREA standards — which are aimed at protecting people in custody from rape — Wanbli Wiconi Tipi staff recognized that these rules are a valuable tool. And, in JDI, they found a partner who could help them use that tool.
In 2015, with the support of a grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, JDI and the Rosebud Sioux Tribe began working together to make Wanbli Wiconi Tipi the first tribal facility in the country to adopt the PREA standards. The key staff person behind the project was Miskoo Petite, Sr., a Facility Administrator who led the push to bring the facility into compliance with the rules. Working with Miskoo and Thomas, JDI trained detention staff on best practices for preventing sexual violence and abuse; our team also helped bring outside advocates into the facility to give services and lend a compassionate ear to the youth, many of whom have suffered serious trauma.
“PREA is about treating people with dignity and respect, and those principles will lay a foundation for safety in any facility, whether a massive state prison or a small, community-run tribal facility,” said Linda McFarlane, a JDI Deputy Executive Director. “Put simply, PREA works when you have strong, dedicated leaders — like Miskoo and Thomas.”
Thomas is proud of the work that Wanbli Wiconi Tipi and JDI have done together. He’s also proud of the kids. “I see many of them in the community when they get out, and they’re thriving. Their future is bright.”
JDI supporters sent a record-shattering 26,000 Words of Hope messages, bringing hope and kindness to survivors behind bars
Imagine spending every day in a cramped cell, with zero privacy, and being subjected to abuse and harassment. Larry knows what it feels like to live this way. Last year, after he was raped by two fellow inmates, he fell into a deep despair. When he tried to report the assault, he was sent to solitary, which only made things worse.
But over the holidays, Larry was thrown a lifeline — by you. Through the Words of Hope campaign, JDI suporters sent Larry compassionate messages reminding him that his life has value — that everyone, including prisoners, deserve to be safe and have dignity.
“These are the only cards I received this year,” Larry wrote us in a letter. “They made me feel like a person.”
This year, thanks to the kindness of people like you, we delivered a staggering 26,000 Words of Hope messages to survivors nationwide. That’s easily our best total yet — an extraordinary display of compassion that is changing lives. It wasn’t just the record number of cards that made this year special. What made this year truly remarkable is that many JDI supporters held their own card-writing events.
One of those supporters is Jordan, a UCLA law student. After hearing about the campaign from her professor, Jordan decided to get involved — and to get her classmates involved, too. “The campaign is a great way to show solidarity with incarcerated survivors,” she said.
Across the country in Virginia, Helen, another supporter, brought together dozens of card writers. This was her second year hosting a card-writing day. Everyone who attended last year’s event came back — and, even better, they tripled the number of cards they wrote. “It’s important to remind people who are incarcerated they are not alone,” she told us.
Words of Hope also received a major boost when the New York Times published an op-ed by Sofia Robinson, an eighth grader who is one of the campaign’s most prolific card-writers. Sofia has been writing holiday cards since she was five, and this year, she organized her schoolmates to join her. As Sofia writes in her op-ed, “The point of these cards is to make prisoners who have been sexually abused feel better. But it also feels really good to write them. So it’s a win-win.”
The cards from our supporters were beautifully crafted, with drawings and eye-popping color. Survivors also showed their artistic side, sending us their own lovely thank you cards in return.
The gesture is especially meaningful given that prisoners do not have ready-made cards, nor markers or crayons. Their cards have to be painstakingly created by hand, using ink scraped from magazines and found materials. “This is the best I can do, because I can’t do much behind bars,” wrote Vernon on a card he made himself. “But I hope that this card shows just how thankful I am for all of your support.”
In this Action Update, we celebrate the Prison Rape Elimination Act’s (PREA) 15th anniversary. I often talk about the changes to policies and practices that this law has inspired — like safe housing for vulnerable inmates, confidential counseling for rape survivors, and better investigations. But PREA has done much more than that. Crucially, it has made corrections officials reexamine their attitudes toward prisoners, and their assumptions about prisoner rape. Using PREA as a tool, prison leaders now emphasize the full humanity of the people in their custody, making sure staff recognize that sexual violence in detention is a huge problem — their problem.
While PREA has been transformative, legislation will only take us so far. If we want to make all prisons safe, all the time, for every single inmate, we need culture change. In July, the New York Times aired a short documentary featuring Rodney Roussell, a JDI survivor advocate, boldly juxtaposing his rapes with late-night television jokes. Weeks later, in a segment on Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal, Bee and actor Terry Crews shamed their peers for using prisoner rape as a punchline. Perhaps a cultural shift is finally starting to happen.
Thank you for being part of the movement to stop prisoner rape. We count on you, and we will win this fight.
To Honor PREA’s Anniversary, JDI is Celebrating the Movement that Made It Possible
Back in 1995, a 17-year-old boy named Rodney Hulin, Jr., was sent to a men’s prison for the crime of setting fire to a dumpster. The Clemens Unit was one of the most notorious prisons in Texas, Rodney’s home state. Within days of his arrival, Rodney was raped and beaten by other inmates. He reported the abuse, but the staff did nothing to help him. When he asked to be moved away from his abusers, his request was denied. So the assaults continued. Desperate, alone, and with seven years left on his sentence, Rodney committed suicide in his cell.
The case of Rodney Hulin, Jr., would become a potent symbol of the crisis of prisoner rape. Rodney’s youth, the harmlessness of his offense, and the appalling details of his abuse made his story impossible to ignore. But the public outrage might have fizzled out were it not for the dogged determination of Rodney’s mother, Linda Bruntmyer.
Linda is one of the heroes in the story of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), the landmark law that was passed 15 years ago. Fueled by grief and anger over her son’s death, Linda joined a JDI-led coalition that was united in its belief that the government has an absolute duty to ensure the safety of the people it locks up. In June 2003, she took part in a historic JDI rally on Capitol Hill to demand PREA’s passage in Congress. “This is not what we mean when we say justice,” she told the gathering. “Rape should not be considered a part of punishment. Rape is always a crime.”
At the Capitol Hill rally, Linda was joined by other advocates, including people whose lives had also been ripped apart by sexual violence in detention. One of them was Tom Cahill, JDI’s former President and a prisoner rape survivor; it was Tom’s tireless advocacy that brought the crisis of prisoner rape to the attention of Frank Wolf, a Congressman from Virginia who would go on to co-sponsor PREA in the House.
In her advocacy, Linda emphasized that what happened to Rodney was not an isolated tragedy. This abuse was systemic and widespread — it was also totally preventable. After listening to Linda’s testimony at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on PREA, the late Ted Kennedy, a co-sponsor of the law in the Senate, made her a promise. “The best way that we can try and thank you,” he told Linda directly, “is to do something, and we will.”
Pushed by Linda and her friends at JDI, Kennedy was true to his word. The late Senator, together with fellow Senate sponsor Jeff Sessions and House sponsors Wolf and Bobby Scott, ensured the bill’s smooth passage in Congress. When the law was signed by President George W. Bush, it was hailed as a human rights landmark — the first-ever federal legislation aimed at addressing the crisis of rape in detention.
At the same time, Linda recognized that PREA’s passage did not mean that the fight to end this abuse was over. Together with JDI and its allies, she pushed for strong federal standards that were required by PREA. “We know that what happened to Rodney could have been prevented,” she testified in 2005 before a federal commission tasked with developing the standards. “Rodney tried to ask for help, and I tried too. But nothing was done.”
Finalized in 2012, the national PREA standards include provisions that target the dangerous practices that contributed to Rodney’s suicide. Today, it is common practice for prisons and jails to train their staff on sexual abuse prevention and response, and specifically on protecting vulnerable detainees. Prisoners are being taught about their rights, and many more feel comfortable coming forward to report abuse. And crucially, staff are explicitly required to act on reports, including when they are made by a loved one on a prisoner’s behalf.
Linda did not get to see the full impact of her advocacy. She passed away in December 2012, just months after the PREA standards were finalized. But she remains an inspiration for the movement to fight sexual abuse in detention. And no one who knew her, or heard her tell her son’s story, will ever quit until there are no more Rodney Hulins.
Earlier this year, a young prisoner in Michigan named Andrew* felt his life slipping away. He had been raped by his cellmate, and the shame and despair were overwhelming. Andrew found a number for a local rape crisis center, but those calls were expensive and, in any event, he knew they would be monitored by prison staff. Thinking he had no options left, Andrew contemplated suicide.
A depressing number of prisoners have stories similar to Andrew’s. There are just so few places incarcerated survivors can safely turn to for help. JDI wasn’t the only one to recognize this glaring need — Mary Mitchell, PREA Analyst for the Michigan Department of Corrections, did as well, and she reached out to JDI for help. In August, JDI launched a crisis hotline for prisoners in Michigan. Called An Inside Line, it is the first-ever crisis hotline that is exclusively for incarcerated sexual abuse survivors. The hotline is free, and it is completely confidential.
An Inside Line is having an impact — just ask Andrew. The counseling he’s received through the hotline has helped stop him from spiraling deeper into depression. “What makes this project so unique is that it provides safe and confidential support in a setting where speaking out, for so long, has been too risky,” explained Jessica Serrano Seipel, a JDI Program Director who is part of the team that fields the hotline calls. “For the incarcerated survivors who call us, we’re the only people they feel they can trust. It’s a literal lifeline.”
Right now, An Inside Line is only available to people in Michigan state prisons, but our aim is to expand it to other jurisdictions.
A few weeks ago, Andrew got his release papers. He was excited, but also a bit anxious about getting his life back together. So he called An Inside Line, and he and Jessica together developed a plan to help ease his transition. He felt better after their conversation — and he knows he can always call again.
* Andrew’s name has been changed to protect his privacy
The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) stands today as one of the most significant human rights achievements of our time. PREA owes its existence to a JDI-led coalition of advocates and prisoner rape survivors who spoke out against this violence — and to the elected officials who listened to them. Below, we honor some of PREA’s champions.
“I felt proud when PREA was passed, and it was meaningful to watch it get signed into law. But while I had a chance to tell my story to some of the most powerful people in the country, there were hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of victims of this violence who never had a chance to be heard at all. That day at the White House in 2003, I was representing all survivors of sexual abuse — and I know that JDI continues to represent them every single day.”
Tom Cahill, former JDI President, JDI Survivor Council
“Looking back, I think we’ve achieved a great deal. We certainly know far more today than ever before about sexual assault in detention, the circumstances surrounding this abuse, and people who are vulnerable to it. The data we brought to bear truly helped convince people who had been skeptics that rape and sexual assault in detention was widespread, and deserved our attention.”
Allen Beck, former Chief Statistician at the Bureau of Justice Statistics
“I don’t want to live in a world where people are raped in detention. That’s why I fought so hard and for so long for PREA — to make sure that prisoner rape ended with me.”
Hope Hernandez, JDI Survivor Council
“To me, prisoner rape is an abomination, the worst kind of bullying, an unacceptable failure of American justice. I was involved at the beginning stages of PREA, when Congress was still developing language for the bill. We suggested it be called the National Prison Rape Reduction Act, but Congress changed it to the National Prison Rape Elimination Act — thus declaring its intent. The significance of that change speaks for itself. As a member of the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission (NPREC), I worked on the PREA standards, which are the best tool we have for the complete eradication of this violence. We can end this violence, but it won’t happen unless we have rigorous audits of prison compliance of the PREA standards.”
John Kaneb, Vice-Chair of NPREC
“On the anniversary of the PREA legislation, I am reminded of the efforts of so many who have committed to this work of creating cultures of safety within our correctional environments. The standards provide us with the tools, yet our vision of ‘no more victims’ must stay front and center of why we continue this imperfect but critical journey.”
Andie Moss, President of the Moss Group
“In the end, and perhaps most importantly, the effort to combat prison rape is a moral imperative. Whatever [a person’s] crime and whatever the prescribed punishment for them, in a humane society prison rape should not be a part of it. Prison rape not only derails justice — it destroys human dignity.”
Congressman Bobby Scott, PREA’s co-sponsor in the House of Representatives
“In the 15 years since the passage of PREA, the way we — as a nation — handle prisoner rape has changed dramatically. Thanks to PREA, tens of thousands of corrections officials are trained to prevent sexual abuse every year; hundreds of thousands of inmates are educated about their right to be safe. And yet, even with this landmark law in place, we are only at the end of the beginning of stopping prisoner rape. JDI will not quit until every single inmate is safe and treated with dignity. No matter what crime someone has committed, rape is not part of the penalty.”
Lovisa Stannow, JDI’s Executive Director
“Back in 2003, when Congress passed PREA, many corrections leaders were angry. I was one of them. My story could have ended there, but it didn’t. I changed my mind. I came to recognize that PREA provides an important structure for running safe prisons, and that JDI is essential to protecting the safety of inmates.”
Reggie Wilkinson, Chair of the Review Panel on Prison Rape
“The thought that this violence could happen to anyone is unacceptable, and PREA is doing good work to end it. No one, no matter what crime they committed, should be subjected to sexual assault in detention.”
Congressman Frank Wolf, PREA’s co-sponsor in the House of Representatives
For decades, sexual abuse in detention was largely ignored by journalists. It was taken for granted that prison life was dangerous and that inmates — a group that has never elicited much sympathy — might be raped.
But that’s changing. Major media outlets are starting to pay attention to the crisis of prisoner rape, challenging pervasive biases about people behind bars. In July, the New York Times published a stirring video — part of their op-doc series — that featured Rodney Roussell, a JDI survivor advocate. In the op-doc, Rodney gives a frank and graphic description of the sexual assaults he endured in a New Orleans jail. As he says in the video, “I felt like dirt, like I didn’t even exist.” Rodney describes how staff did nothing to protect him; one even laughed as Rodney’s rapist forced him to dance.
The video powerfully juxtaposes Rodney’s testimony with prisoner rape jokes that are still fodder for late night television. Perhaps now, after watching Rodney give an account of his time behind bars, television writers and comedians will finally start seeing inmates as people, not punch lines.
A few weeks earlier, the New York Times printed an op-ed by JDI Executive Director Lovisa Stannow on prison oversight. For the past few years, prisons and jails nationwide have been getting high marks from auditors on their work to address sexual abuse. Lovisa’s op-ed takes a close look at the audits — and wonders how credible they really are. Based on JDI’s analysis of thousands of audit reports, Lovisa argues that scores of manifestly unsafe prisons and jails are being deemed compliant with PREA.
A case in point is the East Mississippi Correctional Facility (EMCF). The prison is widely known as a cesspool of staff-supported violence, but you wouldn’t know it from the auditor’s write-up. His assessment praises the prison leadership for their commitment to PREA; both staff and inmates, per his report, feel that EMCF is a “safe place to serve time.” The report seems to be describing a different facility entirely — which it was, in fact. Shockingly, many of the report’s observations had simply been lifted from the auditor’s reports of other prisons.
The problem of substandard PREA oversight is not limited to one sloppy auditor — it’s across the board. The audits are supposed to shed light on what’s really going on inside prisons and jails, whether they are keeping inmates safe from sexual abuse. Instead, most are sugar coating and simplifying, creating an illusion of safety. Indeed, if you reviewed only PREA audit reports, you might think that the crisis of prisoner rape has been solved.
Fortunately, the system of assessing PREA compliance is not beyond repair. In the New York Times op-ed, Lovisa urges Congress to pass the First Step Act, a piece of legislation that would codify guidelines to vastly improve these audits. In July, the First Step Act was passed by the House of Representatives, and we remain hopeful that it will become law in the coming months.
JDI has been pushing for decades to bring greater attention to the rampant sexual abuse in our prisons and jails — and to shatter the negative stereotypes about inmates that allow such violence to flourish.
The pair of pieces in the New York Times are evidence of the gains that all of us, together, are making in the fight to protect the safety and dignity of
people in detention. Let’s keep shining a spotlight on the crisis of prisoner rape, so that the suffering of people like Rodney is never again ignored.
Lovisa’s op-ed and the op-doc featuring Rodney Roussell can be found on the New York Times‘ website. JDI has also posted both pieces on our website, at www.justdetention.org/media
On march 19, in Washington, D.C., I spoke at a Senate briefing commemorating the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), the landmark law that turns 15 this year. It was an honor to be part of an event that included so many PREA champions.
At the same time, I felt the absence of the person who fought harder and longer than anyone for this law: Tom Cahill, the former President of JDI. Channeling the anger and pain from a gang rape he endured in a Texas jail in 1968, Tom helped build JDI from a tiny network of volunteers into a powerhouse organization with political clout. Fittingly, Tom was in the Oval Office on the historic occasion of PREA’s signing, in September 2003. Today, Tom is retired and lives in France. He is a friend, and we stay in touch, but rarely see each other. So I was thrilled when he came to California and visited our office in March. Tom marveled at how much JDI has grown, now with offices in Washington, D.C. and Johannesburg as well as Los Angeles.
Showing characteristic humility, Tom deflected credit for PREA, waving off the congratulatory letters from members of Congress that I showed him. But Tom and I do agree on one thing: the crucial role you play, as a JDI supporter. Thank you for standing up for survivors, and for being part of the fight to end prisoner rape.
At a Senate briefing, JDI honors PREA’s past — and helps secure funding for its future.
At first glance, Jan Lastocy and John Johnson seem to have little in common. You might even assume they were adversaries. Jan is a prisoner rape survivor and JDI Board member who has spent years fighting to hold corrections officials accountable. John is corrections to the core. He is a Chief at the Miami- Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation Department (MDCR); he’s also President of the American Jail Association.
But Jan and John are allies, united in their conviction that rape is not part of the penalty. This unlikely pair took center stage at our March 19 Senate briefing on Capitol Hill. Organized by JDI and Prison Fellowship, the briefing celebrated 15 years of PREA, the 2003 law that stands as one of the most significant human rights victories of our time. In addition to Jan and John, the panelists included Craig DeRoche, a Senior Vice President at Prison Fellowship; John Kaneb, former Vice-Chair of the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission; and Lovisa Stannow, JDI’s Executive Director. Former Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA) — one of PREA’s original sponsors — opened the briefing.
The panelists shared testimony that illuminated PREA’s place in history. Jan credited the law with enabling survivors like herself to become powerful agents of change. “We had been marginalized for so long, but PREA elevated the voices of prisoner rape survivors,” she told the audience. Jan has seized the advocacy opportunities afforded by the law. Her stature is such that when reporters are looking for someone who really understands the crisis of prisoner rape, Jan is often the first person they call.
In the corrections world, PREA’s impact was just as dramatic. John reflected on his own journey from PREA skeptic to one of its most ardent champions. At the briefing he thanked Dr. Allen Beck, the head statistician at the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), for including MDCR on his 2010 list of the nation’s jails with the highest rates of sexual abuse. Many of his peers who were also on “Dr. Beck’s hit list” — to use John’s coinage — refused to believe BJS’s findings. But John used them as a motivator. He reached out to JDI, and together we put in place policies and practices that helped turn the jail around.
The Senate briefing was not only to honor PREA heroes like Jan and John. The panelists also came prepared with a concrete ask: funding for PREA implementation. At the time, Congress was ironing out the details of a spending bill, and PREA’s share of the pot was up in the air. Without robust Congressional support, federal grant programs that have proved so crucial in bringing about culture change at prisons and jails would remain dormant. Even worse, a weak spending commitment would mean that the efforts to patch up the broken PREA auditing system (see page 2) might never get off the ground.
Fortunately, Congress heeded our calls. The House of Representatives and Senate both approved spending a record $15.5 million on PREA. The bill garnered strong support from Democrats and Republicans — thanks in large part to the leadership of Senators John Cornyn (R-TX) and Brian Schatz (D-HI) — proving yet again that stopping sexual abuse in detention is the rare issue on which the two parties agree.
Jan learned about the news shortly after returning home from Washington. She was grateful for Congress’ commitment to protecting every person’s right to be free from rape. She was also deeply appreciative of JDI’s supporters. “This is a huge breakthrough for me, for my fellow advocates, and for prisoners. We couldn’t have done it without JDI’s supporters.”
Most prisons that are plagued by sexual abuse have been unsafe for years, if not decades. A challenge for advocates is getting a glimpse inside such facilities — at their policies and practices; at the attitudes of the staff; and at the lives of inmates. The lack of oversight of U.S. prisons allows sexual violence to thrive.
The PREA standards, which were released in 2012, promised to crack open the closed world of corrections. At JDI’s insistence — and over the objections of many corrections officials — PREA called for facility audits by an independent monitor. Unfortunately, these audits have not lived up to their potential. When the Department of Justice released a national database of audit reports in January, it confirmed our worst fears. Scores of dangerous prisons and jails were receiving perfect marks.
A close examination of the Department’s database makes it clear where the problem lies. Good auditors do not merely check to see if a facility has written policies; they check to see whether those policies translate into practice. Most auditors, however, disregard this crucial distinction. More alarming still are the auditors who, prior to their supposedly independent assessment, socialize with the officials whose performance they are scrutinizing. Some auditors are so contemptuous of their job that they use the same boilerplate text over and over in their audit reports. Predictably, these gleaming audits tell a very different story from what we hear from inmates; in the space below, we juxtapose extracts of audit reports with first-person accounts from the people living in those same facilities.
A shoddy audit is not a trivial concern; it’s a missed opportunity to save lives. Perpetrators of sexual abuse flourish in environments without robust oversight. To fix the PREA audits, we need Congress to act, to mandate that PREA auditors are held to the highest possible standards and that those who blatantly disregard their responsibilities are decertified and barred from doing any future PREA audits.
When judges call for prisoner rape, it puts all of us at risk.
The conviction of Larry Nassar should have been a landmark moment for the anti-rape movement. Dozens of women who were victimized by the USA Gymnastics doctor shared heartwrenching testimony during his sentencing. They denounced not only Nassar, but the people and institutions that let him get away with horrific abuse for so long. As Olympian Aly Raisman put it, “If over these many years just one adult listened and had the courage and character to act, this tragedy could have been avoided.”
The lesson from the Nassar trial is that until we tackle rape culture — the victim-blaming, the indifference by law enforcement, the institutional cover-ups — this violence will continue to thrive. But sadly, much of the impact of this trial was nullified by the express wishes of many people that Nassar himself be raped, as frequently and brutally as possible, in prison. The most visible proponent of this warped version of justice was Rosemarie Aquilina, the judge in Nassar’s trial. Aquilina told him that, if she could, she “would allow some or many people to do to him what he did to others.”
In an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, Lovisa Stannow argues that Aquilina’s comments are dangerous and unacceptable. By endorsing Nassar’s rape, Aquilina breathed oxygen into the destructive notion that it is possible to parse between those who do and do not deserve sexual assault. This is precisely the type of logic that has long been deployed by rape apologists. Cops and prosecutors — and even some of Aquilina’s colleagues on the bench — frequently tell rape survivors that they brought their assault on themselves, because they dressed a certain way, had too much to drink, or didn’t say no loudly enough.
Aquilina failed to see that whether behind bars or in the community, rape dynamics are the same; people in power take advantage of those who are vulnerable, and especially so if they know that they won’t be held accountable. By wishing for Nassar to be assaulted, she ended up promoting rape — the very act she purportedly abhors.
A case like Larry Nassar’s serves as a test of our principles. Sexual abuse in any setting can be stopped, but to end this violence we need a real commitment to safety from the people in charge, whether a prison warden, an Olympics official, or a judge.
We were heartened to hear from so many JDI supporters who were also outraged by Judge Aquilina’s statements. Our movement steadfastly holds the belief that every person, no matter what, deserves to be free from sexual abuse. Thank you, JDI supporters, for being human rights champions.
JDI supporters from around the world participated in our Words of Hope campaign, changing the lives of prisoners.
Since the campaign’s first year, in 2010, Words of Hope has brought peace and joy to countless men and women who are locked up and feel alone. It has also saved lives. But even by these high standards, last year’s holiday season was
special. We delivered more than 22,000 messages to prisoner rape survivors nationwide, each one containing a warm greeting for the new year.
When Larry got your holiday wishes, he was in need of more than a simple pick-me-up. He needed a lifeline; 2017 had felt like a nightmare that might never end. Serving time in a dangerous Florida prison, he had been constantly sexually harassed by staff. The previous year, an officer set him up to be raped. By the time the holidays came around, he was deeply depressed. “I was seriously thinking about killing myself,” he wrote JDI in a letter.
And then a package arrived from JDI. It was filled with compassionate notes from people on the outside. “I sat back on my bunk and began reading all the messages,” Larry wrote. “Halfway through I had to stop, because of the flood of tears streaming down my face from seeing these messages of pure love. After I finished reading all the cards, for the first time in over two months I was finally able to get a restful sleep.”
For Mike, a survivor in California, it had been years since he last received a holiday card. He was sure no one cared about him — until he heard from JDI’s supporters. “I must say I felt deeply touched to know that there are people out there who are genuinely concerned about the fate of all those held in captivity,” he told us. “Thank goodness for human decency.”
It was not just the words that mattered to survivors, but the great effort and care put into crafting the cards themselves. JDI supporters hosted Words of Hope events around the globe, from Los Angeles to Sweden and points in between. “Words of Hope is a way for me to show prisoners that despite their isolation they are part of this world and people care about them,” said Jennifer, a longtime JDI supporter who organized a card-writing day in her hometown in Pennsylvania. “I believe that every survivor deserves some kindness and compassion. It means a lot to me to be part of this campaign every year and to connect with survivors who need to know that we haven’t forgotten them.”