If you want to end sexual violence, start with prisons

If you want to end sexual violence, start with prisons
© Getty Images

In a year that, for many of us, has felt like a relentless stream of bad news, we also have witnessed an uprising against sexual abuse in the workplace.

One after the other, sexual predators in Hollywood, Congress, the media and other industries have fallen into disgrace thanks to the collective voices of women and men who, after years of being silenced, were finally heard.

This signals a positive change in our culture’s response to sexual violence. It indicates that perhaps a person’s painful and unwanted experience no longer will be swept under the rug by an apparatus of complicit actors in order to protect seemingly untouchable powerful figures.


We must continue this momentum, especially as other aspects of our lives such as health care and education come under attack by a reckless administration. But first we need to acknowledge that there’s a key piece missing from this growing movement: the voices of those languishing behind prison walls — in both the U.S. criminal justice and immigration detention systems.

Sexual violence is a reality faced every day by the women, men, and children who are locked up in county jails, state and federal prisons, juvenile correctional facilities and immigration detention centers across the country.

For example, at the troubled Edna Mahan Correctional Facility in New Jersey, an all-women’s prison plagued by multiple lawsuits, two women recently filed a lawsuit against guards who allegedly forced them into sexual acts and harassed them by opening their curtains while showering.

For immigrants in Texas, it’s a similar story. Recently, Laura Monterrosa, an asylum seeker from El Salvador, spoke out about her alleged sexual abuse by guards at the T. Don Hutto Detention Facility. In response, more women at the privately-run detention center are coming forward with their own stories.

For most, if not all of those individuals behind prison walls, breaking the silence often means risking everything.

A prison environment is defined by a power imbalance not dissimilar to the dynamics between the men and women and their abusive superiors in the workplace. Except, it’s significantly more hidden from the public. And on top of that, black and brown bodies are disproportionately affected by incarceration.

A writer for The Nation, in describing the brutal nature of prisons, put it this way: “Being sent to prison is, in this sense, not the conclusion of the criminal justice process but the beginning of long-term torture.”

And that’s what the numbers show us. Nearly 200,000 people were sexually abused behind prisons walls in 2011. That’s according to a piece in the The New York Review of Books that took a deep look into the Bureau of Justice Statistics’s most recent national surveys on sexual victimization in prisons. The office was tasked with collecting information on its pervasiveness, following the passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003.

Among the many critical findings are that corrections staff are responsible for at least half of sexual abuse reports and that these are not isolated incidents. Additionally, the population most vulnerable to sexual violence are those who are LGBTQ, such as Latoya Ricketts, a transgender woman who was forced to strip naked “slowly” and “in a lustful way” by a guard in a California immigration detention facility, according to a recent federal civil rights complaint.  

The Bureau of Justice Statistics also surveyed a select few detention facilities, such as the Krome immigration detention center in Miami.  The survey revealed that the rate of sexual misconduct at Krome was higher than in jails on average.

A federal civil rights complaint on sexual assault filed by our organization CIVIC, Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement, found widespread sexual abuse in immigration detention facilities.  

Between 2010 and 2016, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General received more than 33,000 complaints on sexual and physical abuse against DHS component agencies. More complaints were lodged against U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency responsible for immigration detention facilities including Krome and Hutto, than any other agency.

And guess what? Less than 1 percent of these complaints were investigated. That sends a disturbingly clear message: sexual abuse against immigrants will be tolerated.

That’s why over 70 congressional representatives sent a letter this week to DHS and the Department of Justice calling on them to address this issue.  

Prisons and jails, whether in the criminal justice system or immigration detention system, thrive on secrecy and impunity. These are the same tactics used by sexual predators. But when you’re behind bars, in often remote areas, who’s going to listen to you?

That’s why we need to include these voices and make them a priority. We need to provide people in prisons and detention facilities with a platform to fight against a system that treats them like they’re invisible. Only when we uplift the realities of the most marginalized will we be able to fight and, hopefully, end this culture of sexual violence.

Christina Fialho is an attorney and the co-founder/executive director of CIVIC. Patrisse Cullors is the founder of Dignity and Power Now and co-founder of Black Lives Matter. Liz Martinez is the director of advocacy at CIVIC.