Lovisa Stannow, Crime Victims Behind Bars, Feministing.com, April 29, 2009

This week [April 26-May 2] is National Crime Victims’ Rights Week and this year, for the first time, the President has issued an official proclamation recognizing April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month. The increased attention to sexual violence and crime victims is important – and it should cover all survivors of sexual assault, including people who were sexually assaulted while incarcerated.

Sexual assault is devastating in any setting. People healing from such abuse in a prison or jail face extreme challenges. Incarcerated survivors are unable to move about freely, lack privacy, and may be forced to share living quarters with the perpetrator.

Inmates brave enough to report sexual assaults tend to be viewed with skepticism and are often subjected to punishment instead of support. Many corrections officials isolate inmates who have been victimized, claiming it is for their protection. In the worst facilities, prisoner rape survivors are disciplined for participating in sexual activity. Retaliation by other inmates or staff, including further sexual violence, is not uncommon. “When I was assaulted the first time, I was afraid to ‘snitch’ because I was in fear that my life would end,” says survivor Shakria, who did not report her first rape . Shakria is a transgender woman, currently housed in a men’s facility.

Incarcerated survivors like Shakria are often forced to suffer in silence. Communication with family members and other sources of support may be nonexistent or at the very least difficult. Medical and mental health services are often hard to access and generally do not meet the standards of care provided in the community. When Shakria was raped a second time, she overcame her fear and reported what happened to corrections staff. However, she did not want to identify who raped her, still fearing retaliation, and was denied services. “I refused to press any charges so they refused to give me medical treatment or do a rape kit on me,” she says. “I was placed in [isolation] for 14 days and when I requested grievances, I was refused.”

The support systems available to survivors of rape in the community are largely out of reach to incarcerated survivors, due to a restriction in the guidelines for the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) that precludes rape crisis centers from using victim assistance grants to serve incarcerated rape survivors. Passed in 1984, VOCA restricts the use of more than 300 million dollars in federal victims’ assistance funds every year. Worse still, these restrictions have caused many rape crisis centers and other community-based service providers to erroneously believe that they cannot use funding from other sources to serve incarcerated individuals without jeopardizing their government grants.

Rape and other forms of sexual assault are crimes, no matter where they occur. Regardless of their custody status or criminal history, all survivors of sexual violence need and deserve counseling. Instead of limiting services behind bars, the government should encourage community-based providers to work with all survivors, including those who have been sexually assaulted while in detention.

The importance of providing incarcerated survivors with mental health services reaches far beyond the prison walls. As inmates are released—and 95 percent of prisoners do return home—they bring their emotional trauma and medical conditions back to their communities.

Rape crisis centers that collaborate with prisons to provide services to incarcerated survivors can help ensure the successful transition of these inmates to a law-abiding lifestyle on the outside. Just Detention International has established a pilot project in California, through which community rape crisis counselors are allowed to provide confidential counseling inside two notorious state prisons. Inmates and officers alike agree on the enormous benefit of these services. One survivor described the transformative power of the counseling: “When I first started coming, I was so angry and I didn’t know I could feel different…I started noticing that I was feeling something I had never felt before and that was peace.”

Twenty five years after the passage of VOCA, it is time for lawmakers, advocacy groups, and others concerned about sexual assault to work together to ensure that all survivors of sexual assault have access to counseling services.

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