The next time you are looking forward a wonder woman, look no further than Lovisa Stannow. An established activist and the current executive director of Just Detention International, she upholds an extraordinarily difficult yet vital mission -- to help end sexual abuse in prisons. In her words, “it's the idea that no one should suffer from sexual abuse, regardless of what they have done. We have to remember that every prisoner is a human being.” Caught at the intersection of the anti-violence and anti-prison movements, Lovisa Stannow and her organization provide resources to support inmates across the world who survived this violence.
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five with Lovisa Stannow.
Suzanna Bobadilla: As some of our readers might know, Feministing has featured Just Detention International's work before -- most recently regarding your holiday cards for survivors of sexual abuse. For newer readers to the site, I was wondering if you could share with us JDI’s central purpose and your experience as one of its core leaders.
Lovisa Stannow: To start off, I’ll share with you what our actual mission statements says, which is that Just Detention International is a health and human rights organization that seeks to end sexual abuse in all forms of detention. It emphasizes that sexual abuse in detention is a human rights and a public health issue. JDI remains, as far as we know, the only organization in the world that is dedicated specifically to ending sexual abuse in detention. That is actually shocking considering the magnitude of the crisis. In the United States alone, the federal government estimates that about 200,000 inmates are sexually abused every year. And that’s not incidents, that’s actual people. Most of them on average survive sexual abuse between three and five times. So we are talking about a crisis that is widespread, nationwide, and that effects both men and women and that has historically been neglected.
A couple of other core beliefs that JDI has is that nobody ever deserves to be raped and that nobody ever should suffer sexual abuse in the government’s custody. What it boils down to in the end is that rape is not part of the penalty. Another belief is that sexual abuse in detention is preventable. It is a crisis that we can end. We know that if you have strong and committed leaders, strong policies and sound practices, you can run a safe facility.
This is something that we have always argued and it was so clear once we started getting nationwide data. The federal government over the past several years has done massive nationwide surveys, asking specifically about sexual abuse. These are anonymous surveys, they are very thoroughly done and it’s thanks to that data collection that we now have the 200,000 inmates a year number. But these survey results are presented at a facility level and you can see that in some youth detention centers, for example, where one in three kids are sexually abused every year. And then we look at others where no one is abused. That really dramatic difference -- the fact that we have prisons, jails, youth facilities, that vary so much in prevalence rates -- means that clearly this is not something that comes in with the tap water. Sexual abuse in detention is preventable which is contrary to many pop culture references of this kind of violence that tend to focus instead on rape somehow being inherent to prison life. Or that rape is somehow inevitable, and that simply is not true.
For me, the fact that we are looking at a nationwide massive crisis that very few still are paying attention to and that this is a crisis that we can end -- that to me is such a compelling cause.
SB: Could you touch on more about problematic misconceptions that people have about sexual abuse in prisons?
LS: One of the main misconceptions is that sexual abuse is an inherent part of prison life. That is simply not true. Sexual abuse is not inevitable or unpreventable.
Another really dramatic misconception is that somehow once you are put into prison you are not a part of society anymore. A lot of people don’t want to worry about what’s happening to prisoners. Prisons are very enclosed environments and that means that there still a lot of people out there who believe that prisoners are somehow less deserving of their human rights than the rest of free society. That is not true.
The whole point of basic human rights is that it doesn’t matter who you are, what you’ve done, or your custody status; that doesn’t influence your right to certain basic protections. One of those is your right to be free from sexual violence while you are in the government’s custody. For us, fighting sexual abuse in detention is protecting the basic human rights of prisoners.
As a society we still have a tendency to de-humanize prisoners. That is a really dramatic problem because of course prisons are a part of society, prison officials are a part of society, and so are the prisoners themselves. As long as we continue to either be silent about the abuses occurring or be flippant about those abuses, we won’t be able to stop them.
For JDI, we focus both on naming the problem in detention as the terrible crime that it is and as a preventable human rights decision. And we must also take action within the prison’s and jails to put an end to the abuse.
SB: Something else that I think is particularly powerful about your organization is that it fits squarely between the anti-violence and anti-prison movement. Could you speak more about that intersection?
LS: In my mind, the work to stop rape in prisons is directly related to the broader prisoner rights movement but also a broader movement to end sexual violence generally. There is a very clear link that we see every day in our work -- rape, misogyny, and homophobia.
Most of the people that we work with are men -- given the fact that 93% of prisoners are men. What we see so clearly is that the prison environment tends to be a hypermasculine environment. Where anyone who is perceived as being feminine or weak or somehow not living up to the hypermasculine ideals becomes vulnerable to abuse. We see that the sexual abuse that occurs between inmates in a male prison is a mirror image of the sexual abuse that occurs in the community, perpetrated by men with women as the survivors. We see that once you have been raped in prison you have technically been considered a woman. This is not just true in the United States, this is what we see represented in our work in South Africa as well.
The perpetrators’ masculinity becomes strengthened and the survivor becomes feminized. We see very similar dynamics and that means that our work is the same battle against sexual abuse and oppression that groups are fighting on the other side as well.
SB: Touching on a more recent update, the federal government has announced that it will be extending The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) to include detention facilities that are controlled by the Department of Homeland Security. Could you share with us what your expectations are for this act?
LS: We know that immigration detainees are especially vulnerable to sexual abuse. There are often language barriers, they are often faced with extreme difficulties in just navigating the detention system. There is also a tremendous fear of retaliation, including retaliatory deportation. We know that this an incredibly vulnerable group. The good news is that finally now we’ve got a set of binding standards as mandated by the Prison Rape Elimination Act that specifically addresses sexual abuse in immigration detention, which was just announced last week.
They are one of the most recent outcomes out of the passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). It was something that JDI helped draft and pushed through Congress in 2003. It mandated the development of binding national standards for prisons and jails. We fought for years to have immigration detention centers included so that they also would be bound by the standards that were released in 2012 by the Department of Justice. But because immigration falls under the Department of Homeland Security, those standards weren’t binding.
The good news is that President Obama issued a memo on the day that the Department of Justice standards were released and mandated all federal agencies with confinement facilities to develop their own PREA standards. That’s what we had been pushing for since the end of last week.
The standards aren’t perfect, but they are certainly a step forward.
SB: And to close us out, could you share with us upcoming projects/campaigns for JDI?
LS: The binding standards that we have are very thorough. We have some for prisons and jails as well as for immigrant detention facilities. What we need to do now is to help stimulate a cultural change inside the detention facilities. This is critical so that these standards are fully and meaningful implemented. We have the tools but we really need to put the tools to work. That work will become necessary for us in the coming years.
It’s also time for the Department of Defense to come up with its own PREA standards. There has been a lot discussions about sexual violence in the military, but very little focus on the sexual violence that occurs inside the Department of Defense's own jails. The Department of Defense has not yet developed PREA standards and has not fulfilled the mandate issued in the Presidential weekly address. That is definitely something that needs attention.
We also focus a lot of our work on protecting the most vulnerable prisoners. While anyone can be sexual assaulted in detention facilities, we know that some people are much more likely to be victimized. There are a couple of categories that really stand out: LGBT prisoners are at a extremely high risk of abuse. They really are systematically targeted. That’s a group that we focus a lot on. We work to make sure that prisons and jails take responsibility to keep all prisoners safe, including transgender women who usually are housed in male prisons.
Another group that are highly targeted are those with a mentally illness. Again, it’s absolutely the responsibility of any detention facility make sure that anyone with a mental illness are safe. That’s also a really big focus area for us. Yet another group are men and women who have suffered sexual violence prior to incarceration. How do we keep people safe who have been abused? How do we make sure that they don’t become targets again?
In terms of helping us in our work, there is some very basic assistance. One of them is to like us on Facebook and to follow us on Twitter and to really make sure that you participate in a serious healthy discussion about sexual violence in decision. Another one is the next time you hear someone make a flippant comment about rape, like cracking a ‘Don’t drop the soap' joke, you should try to start a conversation about what rape in prison is all about. I would also urge anyone who wants to get more involved to reach out to a rape crisis center and to focus on providing services to these rape survivors who are especially underserved.
Of course the obvious thing that I should mention is that, as you can imagine, the work to stop rape in prisons is a constant effort to raise enough funds to keep this work up. People who want to support this work financially can do so with great faith that JDI uses every dollar quite thoughtfully.