Prison Rape: Assault Shouldn’t Be a Part of the Sentence

This guest post is a part of the Feministe series on Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Liliana Segura is a senior editor at and a board member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty.

Trigger Warning

“I’ve been raped, physically beaten, extorted, pimped out/sold, intimidated, manipulated, threatened, humiliated, [and] harassed by both officers and inmates,” California prisoner Meagan Calvillo wrote a few years back, in a blunt summary of what happens every day in American prisons. Among transgender people behind bars, her story is not unusual; as Emily Alpert wrote in 2005, “outside of prison, transgender people are among the most marginalized in the United States; inside it, they confound a system that’s ill-prepared to serve them, or even to decide where to put them.”

Cavillo’s experience may sound extreme, but it mirrors that of the most vulnerable prison populations in the U.S. In 1994 in the case Farmer v. Brennan, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a prison official’s “deliberate indifference” to the risk that a trans woman prisoner named Dee Farmer would be raped when placed within the general population of a men’s federal prison violated her Eighth Amendment rights. Yet, “deliberate indifference” remains a good phrase to define the broader attitude towards prisoners who are raped behind bars; among them, transgender prisoners, gay prisoners, young prisoners, prisoners who are locked up for the first time, and prisoners who are mentally ill are often the most targeted for sexual assault by guards and other prisoners alike, their bodies treated as a commodity in the prison power economy. If survivors of sexual assault are routinely silenced in the outside world, those who are assaulted behind prison walls are even more invisible. They are also the least likely to receive sympathy or help from people on the outside.

“Survivors of sexual abuse behind bars experience the same emotional pain as other rape victims,” the staff at Just Detention Inc, the only organization in the country that is “dedicated exclusively” to eliminating sexual assault in prisons or jails, remind us. Yet the ugly reality — familiar to anyone who has ever seen depictions of prison on TV or in popular music, or heard the phrase “don’t drop the soap” — is that prison rape has long been ingrained in the cultural imagination as, at worst, a hilarious punchline about deserving convicts, at best, an indignity that simply comes with the territory.

To combat this attitude, JDI launched an ad campaign a few years ago to force people to visually confront their unconscious double standards about rape victims. “Would you joke around about this man being raped?” asks one ad about a young man dressed in a nondescript t-shirt. In the next frame, the same man is dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit. “How about now?

Printed on postcards and sent out to prison administrators, these ads have attracted a lot of attention in the past several months, but as Lovisa Stannow, JDI’s Executive Director told’s Matt Kelley last month, they are not a new phenomenon. “JDI has been distributing these postcards for several years, to prison officials and others,” she said. “We revamped our website earlier this year and featured them prominently on the homepage, which led to the ‘discovery’ of the images among bloggers.”

In the public debate, prisoners tend to be silent and invisible. Most inmates come from marginalized, low-income communities and people of color are vastly over-represented among them. Prisoners cannot stage public relations campaigns to counter injustices on late-night television or on the big screen. But flippant and ill-informed attitudes about inmates and their right to be free from sexual violence are major obstacles to ending this type of abuse. That is why JDI has made it part of its mission to ensure that prisoner rape is described accurately — as a crime and a devastating human rights violation. The postcard campaign is part of that effort.

It is probably impossible to know exactly how many prisoners are raped behind bars. “According to the best available research,” reports JDI, “20 percent of inmates in men’s prisons are sexually abused at some point during their incarceration. The rate for women’s facilities varies dramatically from one prison to another, with one in four inmates being victimized at the worst institutions.” With some 2.3 million people behind bars in the U.S., the implications are nothing short of a human rights and public health epidemic.

Fortunately, things are starting to change. Stannow cites a “dramatic shift in the debate about prisoner rape” in the past year alone, thanks in part to decades of work by dedicated activists, many of whom are former prisoners and rape survivors themselves.

Stephen Donaldson, one of JDI’s former directors, was a pacifist protesting his government’s bombing of Cambodia in 1968 when he was arrested on the White House lawn, tossed in jail, and, in his own words, “gang-raped about sixty times over two days,” with the complicity of a DC prison guard. Donaldson was one of the earliest people to speak publicly about prison rape, authoring the Prisoner Rape Education Project, which published “practical information and advice on prisoner rape.” He died of AIDS, the result of contracting HIV from one of the people who raped him.

Thanks to the pioneering work of people like Donaldson, today survivors of rape have more of a voice.

“I continue to contend with flashbacks of what this correctional officer did to me and the guilt, shame, and rage that comes with having been sexually violated for so many years,” former prisoner Necole Brown told the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission (NPREC) in testimony published last year. “I felt lost for a very long time struggling with this. … I still struggle with the memories of this ordeal and take it out on friends and family who are trying to be there for me now.”

Brown is just one of many prisoner voices in the 276-page NPREC report, which offers an important, newly comprehensive look at the problem of prison rape in the United States. Mandated by the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, the report makes recommendations for how to address issues like housing, staff training, prisoners education, and medical and mental health care for victims of sexual assault. The U.S. Attorney General has until this coming June to codify the recommendations.

Anyone who wants to learn more about the pervasiveness of rape behind bars should read the NPREC report, which, in addition to compiling expert and survivor testimony, sheds new light on the increasing problem of sexual assault in immigrant detention centers: “In the 15 years from 1994 to 2009,” the authors write, “the number of immigrants held in detention pending a judicial decision about their legal right to remain in the United States increased nearly 400 percent. For the 2009 fiscal year, ICE has budgeted enough money to detain 33,400 people on any given night and more than 400,000 people over the course of the year. The population of immigration detainees includes adults, thousands of ‘unaccompanied’ children, and whole families confined together.”

Because immigration detainees are confined by the agency with the power to deport them, officers have an astounding degree of leverage — especially when detainees are not well informed of their rights and lack access to legal counsel. The Commission learned that officers have propositioned women whose cases they control, telling them that if they want to be released they need to comply with their sexual demands. The fear of deportation cannot be overstated and also functions to silence many individuals who are sexually abused. Those brave enough to speak out may face retaliation. After women detainees at the Krome immigration detention facility in Miami reported sexual abuse by staff, several of them wrote, “We are afraid….each time one of us is interviewed by investigating officers….[S]ome of the women who have given statements have either been transferred or deported to their countries.”

With immigrant detention (in its current form) a relatively modern phenomenon in the U.S., this is a new version of an old problem.

Go here to learn more about prison rape:

Go here to read the testimony of prison rape survivors:

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17 comments for “Prison Rape: Assault Shouldn’t Be a Part of the Sentence

  1. April 21, 2010 at 11:28 am

    Thanks Cara for this excellent post. Readers can take action to stop sexual assault behind bars by signing JDI’s petition urging the Attorney General to enact strong national standards aimed a tending prisoner rape; see the petition and more info here:

  2. April 21, 2010 at 11:45 am

    Thanks for the additional info, JDI! Just remember that the post is actually by Liliana, who wrote this for us as a guest. I just put it up for her as an editor. :)

  3. Juniper Elliot
    April 21, 2010 at 2:57 pm

    I can’t think of many current things more embarrassing to America than its prison system.


  4. April 21, 2010 at 5:25 pm

    I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed this piece, Liliana!

  5. Show-na
    April 21, 2010 at 5:55 pm

    Really informative post. Another resource that was brought to my attention was a 2009 documentary called “Cruel and Unusual” outlining transgender women in the prison system. Like this post, it’s disturbing but very informative. I’m really glad Feministe provides a platform for important discussions like this.

  6. Holy!
    April 21, 2010 at 7:23 pm

    Prison rape is horrible and routine fact of prison life. It’s not limited to transgender persons either. Young men are the most likely to be raped in prison, especially juveniles. Sadly enough, prison rape has become normalized.

  7. Wednesday
    April 21, 2010 at 9:49 pm

    Our prison system makes me so angry.

    Thanks for a well-written, informative post, Liliana. I had no idea how huge a problem prison rape was, and it never occurred to me that it would be a risk for immigrants in detention.

  8. April 21, 2010 at 10:12 pm

    Thank you for this Liliana. “Jokes” about prison rape abound in popular culture – there’s probably one in every second Law and Order episode. It makes me sick, frankly. I wonder how many people who think that being brutalised in this way really is part of the sentence have ever considered what that says about their attitudes to sexual assault in general. To think rape could ever be justified, or that someone’s right to be safe from it could be taken away, is a horrible position to come from.

  9. lupinella
    April 21, 2010 at 11:28 pm

    I have lost several possible friends due to my complete lack of humour on this topic.[I work in entertainment & deal with comedians every day.]
    I so desperately wish people could understand that there is no ‘funny’ side of rape.
    Thank you for an important post. I wish I could have read it all the way through, but massive trigger for me. Very grateful to you for writing about such an prevalent, disturbing topic.

  10. deangv
    April 22, 2010 at 9:10 am

    Did Donaldson really contract HIV as a result of a rape in 1968 as the above blog-post suggests? HIV was not prevalent in the US until the early 1980s. Donaldson’s web page at Just Detention mentions a conviction in 1980 of “assault with attempt to commit murder” which may have been the time at which he contracted HIV. I recognize that the underlying issues are important, and I may be being pedantic, but the above chronology is something that jumps out at me.

  11. April 22, 2010 at 1:08 pm

    Thank you, Liliana. We had an IM group chat conversation at work in which someone asked, “What do people worry most about in the shower?” and someone I get along with quite well said, “Dropping the soap! Haha.” When I told him, privately, that I don’t want to read that shit, he feigned total ignorance and said I was the one making the upsetting leaps in logic from “don’t drop the soap” to “prison rape.”

    I’m forwarding this post to him.

  12. Anonymous
    April 22, 2010 at 11:52 pm

    A wonderful post—thank you. I studied prison law while in law school and the statistics we encountered were horrifying. Almost equally awful is the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence in this area. The “deliberate indifference” standard is nearly impossible for prisoners to meet; only in the most nightmarish of cases do prisoners stand any chance of winning in a civil suit against a correctional officer.

  13. Cristina
    April 23, 2010 at 4:04 pm

    It is great that you posted this article. this issue needs to get more exposure.
    People’s indifference (or far worse) about this issue is really upsetting. But most people will take it back and think better about it if you make it a point to not remain silent when someone makes jokes about it or wishes someone gets raped in prison.
    (It helps to mantion that people who have committed violent crimes are usually the rapists in prison and not the other way around).
    Human Rights Watch did an excellent report about this in 2001. It’s in their website.

  14. April 24, 2010 at 12:09 am

    Here’s a link for the HRW report Cristina mentioned above: No Escape: Male Rape in US Prisons.

  15. April 24, 2010 at 4:12 am

    – My own story of surviving prison rape as an intersexed/trans woman. In Juvey no less. Trigger warning, obviously. Thank you for writing this piece drawing light to experiences like mine.

  16. nofear
    April 25, 2010 at 9:29 pm

    Lets abolish the Prison System and the Prison Industrial Complex. That’s my solution.

    On a side note, but still concerning the discussion of prison and more specifically, prison rape, I am a bit surprised by the adoration of Lady Gaga and her Telephone music video (which was featured on this blog).

    The reason being, is in the beginning of the video, it shows her being in jail, sauntering down the aisle between two male guard escorts, and then forcibly stripped. Umm….forcible strip searches are not entertaining, and considering the prevalence of rape and abuse in prison, I don’t think this sort of imagery is entertaining or “radical” or particularly feminist (as Lady Gaga self-identifies).

    I am not advocating censorship, nor am I a particularly pc person, but I think it is important to look at issues, not as solitary problems on their own island, but as part of a larger interconnected and systematic problem. Feminism has often acknowledged this and the importance of culture in shaping policy and institutions.

    The Prison Industrial should be no exception.

  17. Bethany
    May 1, 2010 at 4:12 pm

    It is horrifying to think that our justice system allows such awful practices. This piece is very informative and I am glad that someone is willing to put the information out in the open where it so badly needs to be. This just goes to show that America is sadly very far from being “the land of the free.”

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