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Feminist Justice Spotlight: Rape in Detention

People incarcerated in U.S. Detention Centers face the reality of rape, sexual abuse, and sexual harassment every day. In the wake of the Sandusky trial, I often heard reference to “real justice” being served once he was in prison. Rape in prison is commonly acknowledged as widespread. Rather than gaining public outcry, this reality is joked about, belittled, or even invited. No one deserves to be raped. As I continue exploring the idea of justice and accountability after sexual violence, it seemed important to put a spotlight on some of the realities of sexual violence in detention.

According to Just Detention International most people who experience rape in prison are not violent offenders. Rather, some of the most vulnerable detainees are those who represent many of the traditionally victimized and marginalized communities and identities in society. A person who identifies as or is perceived to be LGBTQ is at particularly high risk of sexual violence in detention. There is little or no institutional protection for LGBTQ detainees, and sexual violence is commonly ongoing.

Youth in detention are also at increased risk for experiencing sexual violence.People who rape and abuse detained youth can be other youth detainees or staff and professionals charged with monitoring and caring for them. A two-part video series, “Keeping Our Kids Safe,” discusses the risk of violence, the duty to protect, and the impact of the Prison Rape Elimination Act on the juvenile justice system. It explores strategies for preventing and responding to sexual violence in juvenile detention facilities.

Even detainees who have committed no crime are at risk for sexual violence. U.S. Immigration detainees face similar dynamics of sexual violence and abuse as inmates in criminal detention facilities. In addition, these individuals have no access to an attorney or legal services, and are subject to the decision to deport made by the organization that detains them.

Sexual violence in detention is a human rights issue. Just Detention International works to address this issue through policy reform, education, and survivor services. Many local victim-service organizations also make an effort to provide counseling, advocacy, and support groups within the prison setting. These important and needed efforts make a difference in the lives of people in detention. In May, national standards were released that provide some protections for LGBTQ detainees and others. Beyond this though, it seems important to think critically about what we can do to change our culture around prison rape. I wonder what a feminist approach to detention might look like.


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