Op-Ed: What’s life like for thousands of incarcerated women? Imagine if Hollywood’s worst predators had a key to your home


It didn’t start as rape. Just weeks after arriving at a Kentucky jail, Rosa (not her real name, to protect her safety) was already a target. One of her guards, a captain, entered her cell and demanded that she undress for him. Refusing was not an option, so Rosa complied.

Of course he returned. That same month, the captain sexually assaulted Rosa in her cell — the first of multiple attacks over the course of several weeks. She was eventually moved to a new facility, but she wasn’t safe there either: Another guard, this time a lieutenant, abused her repeatedly. Both men were friends with other high-ranking officials who were willing to use threats to keep Rosa quiet. Courageously, she reported them to the police anyway. It didn’t matter. Neither man faced charges. As far she knows, the captain still works at the jail.

What makes Rosa’s story particularly depressing is that it is so common. Every year, about 200,000 people are sexually abused in U.S. detention facilities. Most of the victims are men, since they are far more likely to be locked up. But a recent survey by the Department of Justice found that at least 7% of incarcerated women reported being sexually abused in a one-year period. The true number is almost certainly higher. Prisoners are reluctant to come forward to talk about being raped while still under the perpetrator’s control.


We simply can’t allow government officials to continue raping those in their custody.

The majority of women who endure sexual violence are assaulted not just once, but again and again. And the perpetrators typically get off scot-free. In fact, even in cases where the abuse by guards was substantiated, nearly half of the perpetrators faced no legal action. Worse still, according to a 2014 Justice Department study, 15% of staff abusers were allowed to keep their jobs.

As the head of an organization devoted to ending the sexual assault of those in custody, I hear stories similar to Rosa’s almost every day. These accounts grimly echo the recent revelations about Hollywood and the media. The dynamic of the domineering, abusive man whose decisions can destroy your life is familiar to women everywhere, whether in Hollywood or in prison.

But there are limits to the parallels between sexual abuse that happens in the workplace and in detention.

Prisoners have no place to run or hide from a rapist. In Rosa’s case, her assailants had the key to her cell and could easily create a pretext to isolate her in remote parts of the jail such as the detox room. After her assaults, Rosa could not confide in a loved one, call a hotline or even go for a walk. She had to learn how to navigate an environment in which her rapists had unfettered access to her body. To imagine her experience is to imagine Hollywood’s most notorious sexual predators having a key to your home — except it’s not your home at all, but a tiny, windowless room far away from anyone who is willing to keep you safe.

The point is not that some trauma is worse than others, or to establish some sort of hierarchy of victimhood. Rape is rape, and the people who commit it must be held accountable. But in this moment of heightened awareness of sexual violence and women’s safety, we need to remember those survivors who cannot tell their stories. Social media campaigns are now being used to rebuke sexism and have sent powerful ripples across the media and entertainment industries. But incarcerated women live in a world without hashtags and Facebook.


It will require more than a social media campaign to ensure that there are no future Harvey Weinsteins. The most thoughtful proposals involve greater inclusivity of women in positions of power. There are also urgent calls for safe, confidential channels to report abuse, so that when a victim decides to speak out, her predatory boss doesn’t have to know.

Prisons and jails would also benefit from these ideas. And, in fact, a road map exists to put them in place. In 2012, the Department of Justice finalized the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) standards, which mandate that prisons, jails and youth facilities provide a way for inmates to report sexual abuse to an outside, independent entity. Under PREA, all incarcerated people must be given information about their rights and how to get help if they are assaulted.

Although the standards are strong, their rollout has been uneven. Not enough agencies, for example, are working with outside organizations on bringing rape crisis services to survivors, even though it is required by PREA.

As the anti-sexual abuse movement grows, and outrage turns to action, it’s crucial to remember that the plague of sexual assault infects every corner of our society. We simply can’t allow government officials to continue raping those in their custody.

Lovisa Stannow is the executive director of Just Detention International.

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