Boston, June 1, 2006
Good morning. My name is Chino Hardin. I am a Youth Organizer and Campaign Coordinator for the Prison Moratorium Project in New York City, as well as the point person for the “No More Jail Beds” campaign. I have been in this role for more than four years now, and have traveled throughout the country to raise awareness about the terrible conditions, including sexual abuse, that young people must face while locked up.
I appreciate the opportunity to address the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission today, and would like to share with you some of the experiences I endured as a very young person in prison, as well as things I witnessed other young women go through. In my youth I was arrested sixteen times and incarcerated on eight different occasions, so I know what goes on inside the walls of juvenile detention centers. I also experienced the horror of being a young teen housed in an adult institution.
I was incarcerated for the first time when I was 13 years old, in 1993, at what was then the Spofford Juvenile Center in Bronx, New York. I had gotten into a fight with a boy I knew, and ended up spending a little over one month in custody. Spofford was a very scary place, especially at that age. I was housed in a unit with all girls, but there was a boys unit on a different part of the same floor. I immediately noticed that the male corrections officers seemed too nice to the girls, and were overly familiar with them—putting their arms around them, or touching them on their face, shoulders or waist, and letting the girls touch them. I saw these same corrections officers give these girls candy or extra food, and let them out of their cells when they were supposed to be on lockdown.
The corrections officers even allowed some of the boys to come over to the girls’ side of the facility. In some cases, corrections officers allowed boys and girls who liked each other to have consensual sexual contact inside the girls’ cells. In other cases, it was clear that what was happening was not consensual. The corrections officers allowed certain boys to enter the cells of girls that the corrections officers did not like or said were not behaving well. I was aware of this because I often heard girls screaming in fear at 2 or 3 o’ clock in the morning, followed by figures in red jumpsuits running past my cell. Only boys wore red jumpsuits. In my one month at Spofford, three different girls told me they were raped by boys who corrections officers allowed to go into their cells. I was terrified and did my best to keep a low profile so that I would not be targeted.
As bad as Spofford was, the scariest thing that ever happened to me in prison was when I was sent to Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Westchester, New York, a couple of years later.
Imagine that you’re 15 years old and you get locked up for assault and sentenced to an adult facility. Now you’re upstate in an adult prison doing a one to three year sentence. You call home when you can but your grandmother, who is elderly, says that she will do everything she can to get you out of there, but for you she can’t move fast enough. There is no inmate classification system in place, so you’re put in a cell in the general population with a woman who’s about 50 years old and do your best to figure out how to take care of yourself.
The other inmates get wind of how young you are, and a woman who’s about 32 quickly takes you under her wing. She is much bigger than you are and she is also a leader of a prison crew called the Latin Queens, so almost everyone shows her respect, even the corrections officers. She gets you moved closer to her cell, and gives you cigarettes and food. She tells you stories of her childhood, and she comes to your rescue when you get into a fight with another adult woman. Just when you start to trust her and think she’s your friend, she begins to make you feel uncomfortable. She’s always touching you, takes a shower every time you take one, and tries to kiss you. You tell her that you are not attracted to her, but she says that she loves you. You tell that you love her, but not in that way.
Now you want to put some space between you and her because you are feeling scared, but where can you go? You’re in prison! You ask the corrections officers to move you, but they will not do it unless you tell them that your life is in danger. And you can’t say that because at the time you don’t think it is, and you know the absolute worst thing you can do is snitch on another inmate. Besides, you don’t want to get this person in trouble after she’s helped you.
Early one morning you go to take a shower and when you’re washing your hair, the older woman runs up on you and punches you in the face. You’re stunned and your nose begins to bleed; she pins you up against the wall and shakes a sawed-off broomstick at you and tells you that she is going to “take” what is hers, meaning that she wants to have sex you one way or another. You’re terrified and on top of everything, you’re naked. So you tell her that she doesn’t have to handle it this way and that you will be her girlfriend. But it’s obvious she doesn’t believe you, so even though you want to die right now, you pull her closer to you despite your bloody nose, close your eyes and kiss her. You’re devastated, but at least you kept from being raped. Several months later, you’re finally let out of that hell.
Between the ages of 16 and 18, from approximately 1997 until 1999, I was incarcerated several times, each time at Rikers Island’s adolescent unit. I witnessed a lot of sexual abuse of girls there. For instance, at times when I showered, I observed that male guards were watching in a manner that made me very uncomfortable and clearly had nothing to do with ensuring security. I also knew inappropriate things were happening because girls who had no money in their commissary would suddenly have things that are highly coveted in prison—like cigarettes and candy. When I asked the girls where they got those things, they would tell me that a corrections officer had given it to them. For example, a girl would say that the corrections officer was now “her man,” meaning that he was giving her those items in return for sex and sexual favors. Sometimes I even saw girls putting on a show for a male corrections officer in the shower—rubbing themselves or using the soap like a sex toy—while he watched nearby, smiling and obviously sexually aroused.
In addition to sexual misconduct and coercion, there were also instances where girls were viciously attacked and forced to have sexual intercourse. One of the lowest points in my life was when a male corrections officer at Rikers raped one of my friends there. She came to me immediately and told me what happened—that he had assaulted her in a room that was out of the way from other inmates and corrections officers. She was terrified, and did not report what happened to her. As a result, she received no medical treatment or counseling. The corrections officer knew that this girl was my friend, and in the days after the rape, I remember him looking at me slyly and smiling as if he knew that I knew what he had done.
Even though a number of years have passed since I was in custody, I still struggle with the memories of the attempted sexual assault against me, the rape of my friend, and male corrections officers taking advantage of girls they were supposed to be protecting. To this day, I have trouble sleeping through the night, I can’t undress in front of other people, and I am very uncomfortable with sexual intimacy. The only way that I have been able to cope with the sexual violence I witnessed in prison is by throwing myself into activism. By increasing public awareness of what happens to youth behind bars, I feel some small measure of peace within myself.
I ask the Commission to take its mission very seriously when it comes to preventing sexual abuse against youth in custody. Please understand that even for someone like me who was able to fend off a vicious attack, the struggle to move on with life—without being consumed by rage—is a difficult one that I must manage on a daily basis. Something was stolen from me that I can not get back, and I speak out today to prevent other young people from going through this.
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