Sexual abuse is devastating regardless of where it occurs, but the trauma experienced by incarcerated survivors is especially profound. An urgent lack of adequate counseling services, restrictions posed by incarceration, and the extreme risk of retaliation cause many prisoner rape survivors to suffer in silence. Most facilities do not offer safe, confidential mental health counseling, as is available in the community. Moreover, community-based service providers are often prohibited from working with current or former inmates, because they rely on restrictive federal grants. The court system is similarly unavailing. Prosecutors rarely pursue prisoner rape cases, and incarcerated survivors who file civil lawsuits must overcome significant procedural hurdles before a judge will consider the merits of their cases. JDI is committed to ensuring that all survivors have access to the mental health and legal resources they need to heal from sexual abuse, regardless of their background and custody status.

Mental Health Counseling

Every day, JDI receives letters from survivors behind bars telling their stories and asking for help. JDI responds with a Survivor Packet filled with information to help the survivor begin the healing process and connect with local service providers. Each packet includes an introductory letter, a list of local resources, fact sheets, publications about recovery from sexual abuse, and a letter of hope from another survivor.

Included in the Survivor Packet is Hope for Healing, written by JDI to address the unique experiences of prisoner rape survivors. This self-help manual details the emotional concerns common to sexual assault survivors, provides information about Rape Trauma Syndrome, and spells out the rights of prisoner rape survivors.

Hope for Healing
Resource Guide for Survivors of Sexual Abuse Behind Bars

“I [wrote] to you a few months back, and your office sent me some very helpful information, and I wanted to say thank you for taking the time to help me deal with this sexual assault.” K.T.

To help expand the resources available for prisoner rape survivors, JDI is also working to amend laws that prevent rape crisis centers that rely exclusively on federal funds from assisting currently or formerly incarcerated survivors. In passing the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) and the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), Congress failed to recognize that someone who committed one crime can be a victim of another. As a result, agencies are prohibited from using their VOCA and VAWA money to assist inmates.

JDI is mobilizing a coalition of service providers and advocates who are concerned about the lack of access to community counseling for prisoner rape survivors. With these partners, JDI informs legislators and other policy makers of the need for victim services for inmates, and the need to reform VOCA and VAWA.

For more information about JDI’s effort to improve access to counseling services, please contact Christine Kregg, Senior Program Officer, at

Paths to Recovery

Imagine you are incarcerated and have just been sexually assaulted.

Do you report it?
If you do, who will find out?
Will you be kept safe from the perpetrator?

You know one thing, the only people to whom you can ask these questions are prison officials, who will be required to file a formal report. You are not ready for that, so you keep quiet, hoping to make it to your parole date without being assaulted again.

This is the scenario that survivors of prisoner rape typically face. With no one to go to for help, it is no surprise that most survivors stay silent, bearing their trauma alone. One of JDI’s pilot programs, Paths to Recovery, aims to remedy this serious problem by providing inmates at two California prisons – California Correctional Institution (CCI) and California Institution for Women (CIW) – with confidential counseling with outside rape crisis professionals.

From the start, the Paths to Recovery pilot program was highly controversial. Prison administrators were concerned with liability if they allowed outsiders into their facilities. Prison investigators expressed discomfort with the idea that sexual assaults occurring at their facilities would be shared with a counselor but not with them. Correctional mental health staff were troubled by the idea that, if sessions were to remain confidential, the safety of suicidal survivors might be compromised.

JDI responded to these concerns by bringing together community rape crisis counselors and corrections officials, providing training on each organization’s role in preventing and responding to sexual assault, and by developing a process for providing confidential counseling without compromising safety and security. This model proved to be successful in building cooperative relationships between agencies that had never before worked together. Survivors at CCI and CIW no longer have to suffer in silence, and in fact are more likely to report abuse now that supportive counseling is available.

“The best part is that this is just for me. When I first started coming, I was so angry. I started noticing that I was feeling something I had never felt before and that was peace… I think if we have more programs like this, our returning rate would be less… This is my second time in and it’s so much better because this time I got to work on me.” Survivor at CIW

Read testimony by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation about the success of the Paths to Recovery program

For more information about Paths to Recovery, please contact Deputy Executive Director Linda McFarlane at

Access to the Courts

“Being violently assaulted in prison is simply 'not part of the penalty' that criminal offenders pay for their offenses against society.”  Farmer v. Brennan

For many survivors of sexual violence behind bars, civil litigation is the only way to demand accountability and seek justice for the abuses they have endured. JDI assists in such cases by submitting amicus briefs and by developing core legal arguments related to sexual violence in detention.

JDI's amicus curiae docket

In the landmark case Farmer v. Brennan, the Supreme Court acknowledged that prisoner rape may amount to cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Nonetheless, the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) has prevented scores of prisoner rape survivors from obtaining justice in federal court. By imposing a strict one-year time limit to file suit, demanding that the confusing steps of an institution’s internal grievance system be met, and requiring that victims prove a physical injury in order to seek monetary relief, the PLRA shuts the courthouse door on most prisoner rape survivors seeking government accountability. JDI is at the forefront of the effort to amend this law, working to remove the main barriers to litigation for inmates who are sexually assaulted while in detention.

Learn more about the PLRA

JDI is a founding member of the Stop Abuse and Violence Everywhere (SAVE) Coalition, which seeks to reform the PLRA.

Read JDI’s testimony about the need to reform the PLRA

For more information about JDI’s initiative to improve survivor access to the courts, please contact Senior Program Director Cynthia Totten at