South Africa

Sexual abuse plagues South Africa’s corrections facilities, including Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town.

South African prisons, which house both sentenced inmates and pre-trial detainees, are notoriously overcrowded and dangerous. In 2007, the Jail Commission, appointed by former President Thabo Mbeki, described “the horrific scourge of sexual violence that plagues prisons where appalling abuses and acts of sexual perversion are perpetrated on helpless and unprotected prisoners.” In light of the nation’s HIV crisis, the Commission noted that these abuses are “effectively, by omission, imposing a death sentence on vulnerable prisoners.”

JDI partners with key stakeholders, including local advocacy groups, corrections officials, and oversight bodies, to address rampant sexual abuse in South Africa’s prisons. JDI is currently working with the country’s Department of Correctional Services to develop a policy framework for addressing prisoner rape. In addition, JDI collaborates with local organizations to provide comprehensive workshops for corrections officials and other facility staff. These sessions increase officials’ understanding of the dynamics of prisoner rape while providing concrete strategies for preventing sexual violence and responding effectively to incidents of abuse. Hundreds of South African corrections officials -- including line staff, psychologists, chaplains, and prison administrators -- have participated in these workshops.

As part of the effort to raise awareness about sexual abuse in South Africa’s detention facilities and the need for reform, JDI has briefed the parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Correctional Services on the scope of the problem and key recommendations to address this violence. JDI has also advised the Committee in its efforts to more fully incorporate prisoner rape into its legislative oversight function, which includes conducting regular visits to correctional centers around the country.

Since the start of its South Africa initiative, JDI has collaborated with the Judicial Inspectorate of Correctional Services, an independent oversight agency that employs more than 200 community-based ombudspersons, so-called Independent Correctional Centre Visitors. These ombudspersons have access to all South African correctional centers, are able to speak confidentially with inmates, and can assist with requests ranging from facility transfers to access to medical care. JDI has conducted workshops on sexual violence for these officials with an emphasis on how to detect and respond to prisoner rape. The monitoring and oversight provided by the Judicial Inspectorate’s staff is a model for other nations, and JDI is committed to providing lessons learned in South Africa to policymakers and officials in the U.S., where such oversight is much more limited.



Family visitation day at Centro Femenil de Readaptación Social de Santa Martha Acatitla in Mexico City

JDI seeks to improve conditions in Mexican detention facilities, working closely with non-governmental organizations, corrections agencies, and government prison oversight agencies. Few Mexican inmates come forward with complaints about sexual abuse in prison, and there are no official studies of the prevalence of this type of violence. However, most observers agree that this lack of formal complaints is in no way a reflection of safe facilities. On the contrary, former inmates, prison officials, prison ombudspersons, and human rights advocates agree that it is fear, shame, and a belief among inmates that no help is available that prevents survivors of sexual abuse from speaking out.

JDI works with its local partners to bring the problem of sexual violence in detention out of the shadows and to ensure that Mexican officials take appropriate measures to prevent and respond to such abuses. In collaboration with the Mexico City Human Rights Commission and the National Human Rights Commission, JDI has worked to strengthen the country’s independent prison oversight system. For example, JDI has provided training to government ombudspersons who enter Mexican facilities regularly to speak with inmates and to monitor prison conditions. The JDI training workshops focus on the unique dynamics of sexual violence in detention, including how to detect this form of abuse in an environment where inmates are fearful.


Prisons and jails in the Philippines are severely overcrowded, as seen in this women’s dormitory at the Manila City Jail. Detainees sleep three to a bed, or on the floor.

JDI is working with the national human rights commission, non-governmental organizations, and lawmakers to raise awareness about and advance strategies to address sexual violence in Philippine detention facilities.

Primary among these efforts is JDI’s advocacy in support of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), a bill originally introduced in the Philippine Congress in 2008 that is modeled after the U.S. law by the same name. The legislation calls for the establishment of a zero-tolerance standard for sexual abuse in detention, the collection of data on the incidence of prisoner rape, an examination of the best and worst performing detention facilities, and the provision of grants and technical assistance to support efforts to address the problem. JDI submitted proposed amendments to the Philippine PREA to the Congressional committees considering the bill, and provided documentation for the bill’s sponsors regarding the remarkable progress the U.S. PREA has brought about in the effort to end sexual violence in U.S. detention facilities. A revised version of the bill, incorporating JDI’s proposed amendments, was introduced in January 2012.

While little research has been done on prisoner rape in the Philippines, the country’s detention facilities exhibit many of the conditions that lead to sexual abuse, including severe overcrowding, lack of adequate supervision, failure to separate the most vulnerable inmates from likely predators, widespread homophobia, and a culture of silence around the problem of sexual abuse. The failure consistently to separate female detainees from male detainees, and juveniles from adults, has resulted in many documented instances of sexual abuse.

In addition to conducting legislative advocacy, JDI provides training and technical assistance to independent ombudspersons who regularly enter Philippine detention facilities, and has contributed to a shadow report by a coalition of local NGO’s to the United Nations Committee Against Torture for the Committee’s periodic review of the Philippines.

For more information on JDI’s international work, please contact JDI’s Program Director, Cynthia Totten, at