In many ways, JDI’s main office, in Los Angeles, is pretty ordinary. It has what you would expect to see in a busy workplace; there are desks, photocopiers, and a constantly running coffee machine.
But our office also holds something that exists nowhere else in the world. In a dozen or so locked file cabinets, stacked against the walls of an unoccupied room, are decades’ worth of letters written to JDI by incarcerated sexual abuse survivors. Together, these letters — more than 30,000 total — make up the world’s only archive of one of the worst human rights crises of our time.
The letters offer a devastating glimpse into the lives of prisoners — of their isolation, their trauma, and their daily struggle to get by. But at the same time, these letters are brimming with hope. The pages document how people living in desperate conditions are able to persevere, and heal.
Right now, JDI is fighting back against an Arkansas jail that has banned inmate letters (see page 4). This policy is completely unnecessary, and dangerous; indeed, we have more than 30,000 examples showing why letter-writing from prison must be protected.
I believe that one day we’ll stop adding letters to our archive. But when that happens, it won’t be because of shortsighted corrections policies. It will be because we have stopped prisoner rape, once and for all.
Our Immigration Detention System is Broken — and Children are Suffering as a Result
In detention facilities along the border, children are living a nightmare. They are being held in cages, with no access to showers, toothpaste, or clean clothes. Food is often so scarce that kids go to bed hungry.
These conditions, while horrific in their own right, hint at an even deeper human rights crisis. In a recent op-ed for the Houston Chronicle, JDI Executive Director Lovisa Stannow spotlights the rampant sexual abuse and harassment inside Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facilities. There have been scores of reports of sexual assault against children in CBP custody — and those are just the cases that we know about. Considering that kids typically don’t report abuse in any setting — let alone when they’re locked up, and the adults in charge don’t care enough to give them adequate food or soap — the true scale of the problem is unfathomable.
The failure to keep migrant children safe should not come as a surprise. Sexual abuse thrives in detention facilities that are badly
run — and the agencies that hold migrant children are a case study in poor leadership. Top immigration officials have done little to rein in toxic staff culture. Sexism, homophobia, and anti-migrant views are rampant among the rank and file. Speaking out against a fellow agent is taboo; under the “green code,” loyalty to the uniform is prized above all else, including human rights.
Shamefully, the response of CBP’s top brass has been to pass the buck. Every new scandal that comes to light — the agent who leveraged his position of power to target the mother of a boy in his care; the facility where staff openly mocked a gay detainee; the secret CBP Facebook
group where rape jokes were being shared regularly — is dismissed as the work of “a few bad apples.”
This defense is the stock and trade of weak corrections officials. Good leaders recognize that it is their duty to crack down on unprofessional conduct — that a “bad apple” is not just a workplace nuisance, but an indicator of a larger problem that must be addressed.
CBP is not the only federal agency that is falling short in its mission to ensure the safety and dignity of children. In February, it was revealed that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which houses unaccompanied migrant children after their release from CBP custody, had received thousands of reports of sexual abuse.
Like their counterparts at CBP, the top officials at HHS have been quick to point fingers elsewhere. One HHS official, during questioning before Congress, tried to downplay the problem by noting that the abuse in HHS shelters was committed either by other children or by contract workers — as if that fact somehow absolved his agency, or diminished the trauma of the children who were victimized.
It is possible to end the sexual abuse of migrant children in detention, and it is the government’s job to do so. But agency leaders have proven again and again that they are not up to task.
When the government takes away someone’s freedom, it takes on an absolute responsibility to keep that person safe. If it cannot do so, then it must stop detaining them.
JDI has reviewed thousands of Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) audit reports over the past few years. What we found was deeply troubling. Many reports failed to examine corrections practices and simply regurgitated written policy; others heaped praise on facilities that were doing the bare minimum to protect people from rape, if even that much.
But even by these pitiful standards, the audit of the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn, New York, stood out. The federal prison is among the worst facilities in the nation — a cesspool with a lengthy history of staff sexual misconduct. MDC is, in other words, exactly the kind of prison that needs outside scrutiny.
But none of MDC’s problems made it into the PREA audit. Per the final report, the facility was well run, the staff were committed, and
the inmates safe. Never mind that days before the audit three officers had been charged with raping at least six inmates. Based on the audit,
you’d think MDC was a model institution.
Clearly, the MDC auditor had no business conducting prison assessments. And now, thanks to JDI, he won’t be doing any more of them. Terrible auditors are finally being decertified for cause — meaning that they cannot ever again evaluate a prison or jail’s efforts to keep inmates safe from sexual abuse. It also means that the good auditors — the ones who care about prisoner safety — can step up to provide the meaningful oversight that is needed.
The removal of shoddy PREA auditors is the result of a law that JDI helped pass last year to repair the prison monitoring system. Known
as the Parole Commission Extension Act, in addition to requiring substandard auditors to be decertified, the law helps ensure that people who aren’t cut out for the role don’t get certified as PREA auditors in the first place.
Among those who have been dropped from the ranks is the auditor who was contracted to assess many of Florida’s prisons. From reading that auditor’s reports, you would never know that Florida runs arguably one of the most dysfunctional state prison systems in the country. In July 2016, the auditor determined that at the Century Correctional Facility (CCF) there was “no retaliation against any inmate or staff member who reported sexual abuse or sexual harassment.”
That finding would have seemed odd to Robert*, a CCF prisoner who was sexually abused by a staff member. When he told a lieutenant
what happened, she called him a liar and cautioned him to “to watch [his] every step for messing with one of ‘her’ officers.”
Now, through JDI’s advocacy, the people in charge of monitoring are better equipped to make sure prisoners, like Robert, are safe.
* Robert’s name has been changed
For a long time, Isak Sass did not use his real name when talking about being sexually abused in a South African prison. Isak had good reason to avoid exposure. As in the US, prisoner rape survivors in South Africa are often made to feel like the abuse was their fault. The intensity of the stigma around sexual violence was made clear to Isak when he tried to speak out while locked up. No one lifted a finger to help: a guard laughed in his face, the prison nurse told him to “wash his stinking body,” a priest told him to repent, and the judge presiding over his case told him that rape was a fact of life in prison and that he should get used to it.
But in recent years, Isak has grown more comfortable talking about the assaults. He found that opening up to people he trusted, like the team at JDI-South Africa (JDI-SA), helped him process difficult feelings. It also became clear to Isak that by speaking out, he could help shift people’s negative attitudes toward prisoner rape survivors. Eventually, Isak started appearing at JDI-SA advocacy events, sharing his story with reporters, policymakers, and even corrections officials.
And now, Isak is telling his story to the world. This summer, JDI-SA premiered a groundbreaking documentary about Isak called Taking Off the Mask. Co-produced by JDI-SA and Azania Rizing Productions, the documentary traces Isak’s long, and ongoing, journey to
healing — and the pivotal role of advocates who are helping him along the path. “I was always blaming myself for what happened to
me,” Isak says in the film. “JDI helped me come to the conclusion that it wasn’t me, it wasn’t my fault.”
Taking Off the Mask was screened in Johannesburg on July 18 — Nelson Mandela Day in South Africa — before a standing-room only crowd. For most of the people there, the film was their first time seeing a person talk about being raped in prison. “Isak’s vulnerability, and his willingness to share such a traumatic experience, is remarkable,” said one attendee. “I feel so grateful for his bravery.”
The film’s reach will extend far beyond that packed theater. JDI-SA will show Taking Off the Mask at workshops aimed at teaching corrections officials how to deal compassionately with survivors. And the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services — South Africa’s prison watchdog — plans to share it with its staff.
The widespread embrace of the film is exactly what Isak hoped for. While he can’t undo the trauma he endured, his goal is to make the
public understand that prisoner rape is a devastating crime, and that it is up to all of us to stop it.
Prisoner rape survivors have always been at the forefront of JDI’s work. They serve as media spokespeople, as policy analysts, and as our expert trainers on how to run safe prisons and jails.
Russell Dan Smith understands JDI’s commitment to empowering survivors better than anyone. Indeed, it was Dan, as he is known to his friends, who started People Organized to Stop the Rape of Imprisoned Persons — the organization that would become Just Detention International — when he was released from prison in 1980.
Today, nearly four decades later, Dan continues to play a leadership role at JDI, as one of the newest members of our Survivor Council.
Formed in 2008, the Council is the world’s only network of prisoner rape survivors dedicated to ending this violence. It is also incredibly effective. Members of the Council have been instrumental in all of JDI’s successes, from the development of our lifesaving inmate wellness programs in California to securing groundbreaking legislative wins on Capitol Hill.
Dan is part of a slate of powerful survivor advocates who recently joined the Council. Among the other new members are Zahara Greene, Nathan Jones, Rodney Roussell, and Stephanie Walker; each has excelled at conveying to public audiences why we, as a society, must
commit to defending prisoners’ safety and dignity.
Dwight Hines and Jossie Ramos — both of whom are still incarcerated — have also joined the Council, helping to ensure that those who are still behind bars are also involved in our work.
To learn more about JDI’s Survivor Council members, visit: www. justdetention.org/designation/survivorcouncil.
JDI Is Fighting Back Against a Jail’s Dangerous “Postcard-Only” Policy
If you were to ask a sexual abuse survivor about their healing process, chances are they’d talk about the people in their emotional support network — parents, spouses, best friends, counselors.
Survivors of prisoner rape depend on the same networks for support. But instead of getting help in person, the primary way for many inmates to get help is by writing letters. Survivor Council member Joe Booth credits letters with saving his life. As he put it, “JDI held my hand through the mail. Without them, I’m not sure I would have made it.”
Letters may seem desperately old-fashioned to those of us on the outside — but for prisoners, they are a lifeline. They are safer and more reliable than other options for sharing deeply personal information. Visits from family and friends are often held in noisy public areas of the prison, monitored by staff, and limited to one hour — hardly an ideal setting to talk about trauma. Phone calls (other than with an attorney) are monitored or recorded, and the cost exorbitant; email access is becoming more common, but emails, like phone calls, are never private unless exchanged with an attorney. The sheer number of handwritten letters that JDI receives — roughly 2,000 every year, and often 5-6 pages long — is a testament to the importance of written correspondence in survivors’ healing.
So when it came to light that a jail in Baxter County, Arkansas, had made it virtually impossible for survivors to send or receive letters, we were deeply alarmed. Our concerns intensified when a federal district court — in response to a lawsuit by the Human Rights Defense Center — allowed the restrictive mail policy to stand. In September, JDI joined with several other prisoners’ rights groups in filing an amicus brief encouraging the court of appeals to reverse the district court’s ruling — and to allow prisoners to send and receive the letters that they so desperately need.
In the brief, JDI and our partners take aim at the jail’s policy of limiting inmate correspondence to just postcards. Needless to say, a postcard is ill-suited for sharing sensitive information. Prisoner rape survivors reach out to us because they feel safe doing so — but
that sense of safety is lost when a survivor can only communicate using a flimsy 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 piece of cardboard and no envelope. The
Baxter County jail ban also covers printed materials that are vital to survivors’ wellbeing. If an inmate at the jail were to contact JDI, we would be prohibited from sending them our Hope for Healing booklet — a self-help resource that is tailored for survivors of rape behind bars.
This isn’t the first time a detention facility has curtailed survivors’ ability to reach outside help. A few years back, we received a postcard
from an inmate at the Maricopa County jail, which had instituted a similar ban to Baxter County’s. The postcard contained a brief, chilling cry for help; one can only imagine what he would have written in a letter. JDI staff, working closely with officials at the Maricopa jail, were able to change the policy so that survivors can reach out confidentially to advocates on the outside.
The court of appeals will issue a ruling in the Baxter County case in the coming months. Whatever the outcome, JDI will continue to fight for the rights of prisoners to connect with their families, and with places where they can get help, like JDI.
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