Just Detention International's first "office," 1983-1987
JDI's first "office," 1983-1987.

Just Detention International: A Brief History

JDI was founded in 1980 by Russell Dan Smith as People Organized to Stop the Rape of Imprisoned Persons (POSRIP). The group's mission, as stated in its first newsletter, was to deal “with the problems of rape, sexual assault, un-consensual sexual slavery, and forced prostitution in the prison context.” Like many of those involved in the early days of the organization, Mr. Smith himself was a survivor of rape behind bars. POSRIP was soon renamed Stop Prisoner Rape, a name that remained in force until September 4, 2008, when it became Just Detention International

Early on, JDI served as a voice for corrections reform when few others had the courage to do so and remained afloat only through the dedication of volunteers. JDI helped survivors of rape file damage claims, provided referrals for expert testimony, and encouraged class action suits against negligent institutions.

JDI was incorporated in 1994 by Stephen Donaldson, who was then its Eastern Regional Director and who went on to become its president. Donaldson, like  Smith, was a survivor of prisoner rape. During two days in 1973, when he was in jail on charges of trespassing on White House property during a peace protest, Donaldson was gang-raped approximately 60 times.

Donaldson, who was also known as “Donny the Punk,” was a powerful and uncompromising writer. As president of JDI, he wrote articles and editorials on prison sexual assault and was featured in media outlets nationwide, including The New York Times, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, and 60 Minutes. He also coordinated JDI’s amicus brief for the groundbreaking 1994 Supreme Court case on prisoner rape, Farmer v. Brennan

Donaldson launched JDI’s website and litigated to protect its content. In April 1996, he testified on JDI’s behalf in the case ACLU v. Reno, which challenged the constitutionality of the recently created Communications Decency Act. The act, which sought to create standards for “decency” for content posted on the Internet, was opposed by JDI because it would have restricted access to the sometimes-explicit accounts of rape posted on the group’s website. The Supreme Court declared the CDA unconstitutional in June 1997. 

In 1996, after the death of Donaldson -- as a result of AIDS, which he contracted during a prison sexual assault -- Don Collins, JDI's former vice president, became the group's president. Collins, also a prisoner rape survivor, served until 1998, when he was forced to resign for health reasons.

Tom Cahill followed Collins as JDI's president. Cahill recalls that during the early days of the organization he directed the group out of what was then his home: “A beat-up old camper on the back of an equally beat--up old pickup truck parked mostly on the streets of San Francisco.” He later moved the operation of JDI to a barn on a ranch north of San Francisco.

Tom Cahill and Stephen Donaldson, two of JDI's presidents.
Former JDI presidents, Tom Cahill and Stephen Donaldson.

Cahill has continually drawn attention to the callousness of some corrections officials who do little to address rape behind bars -- something he experienced first-hand. Arrested for civil disobedience in 1968, he was gang-raped and tortured by other jail inmates for more than 24 hours.

In 2001, due to the increasing national attention the issue of inmate sexual assault was finally beginning to receive, as well as to the generosity of its donors, JDI underwent a significant transformation. The organization opened its first permanent office, in Los Angeles, and hired Lara Stemple, a lawyer with a background in human rights, as its executive director. 

JDI was instrumental in securing passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) of 2003, the first--ever federal civil law addressing sexual abuse in detention. JDI worked with senators and representatives on both sides of the aisle to develop the legislation and led a broad coalition of non-governmental organizations to support it. After PREA was signed into law by President Bush in September 2003, JDI turned its attention to ensuring its implementation. 

Senator Edward Kennedy wrote to Mr. Cahill, “All of us in Congress are grateful for your role in helping to pass the Prison Rape Elimination Act. It was a brilliant achievement and I’m optimistic that your passionate advocacy and the first national survey, the initiation of which owes so much to you, will result in the actual elimination of the horrible abuse that has afflicted so many inmates in correctional facilities throughout the United States. The nation owes you a huge debt of gratitude for this impressive reform.” 

In May 2012, JDI secured a landmark victory when the U.S. Department of Justice issued national standards aimed at preventing and responding to sexual abuse in detention. These provisions, mandated by PREA, include many lifesaving reforms long championed by JDI, such as independent audits of facilities, better protections for vulnerable inmates, and limits on pat-down searches. Today, JDI works with policymakers, legislators, prisoner rape survivors, and allied organizations to ensure that the PREA standards live up to their potential to ensure the safety and dignity of all detainees.

More than three decades after its inception, JDI remains the only organization in the world that is dedicated exclusively to the elimination of sexual violence in detention. Survivors of sexual abuse continue to play leading roles in the organization’s work, serving on JDI’s Board of Directors, on its Survivor Council, and as members of its Survivor Speakers List. Working together with JDI’s staff of human rights lawyers, journalists, social workers, and others, these courageous survivor advocates spark reform at the federal, state, and local levels, in the U.S. and abroad.

JDI has offices in Los Angeles and Washington, DC. JDI is led by long-time Executive Director Lovisa Stannow, an experienced human rights advocate. David Kaiser, a writer, serves as the Chairperson of the Board of Directors. In 2013, JDI founded JDI-South Africa (JDI-SA) as an independent organization, based in Johannesburg, to build on the work that JDI began in South Africa in 2005. JDI and JDI-SA share a core mission: to end sexual abuse in all forms of detention.