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Words of Hope for Survivors of Sexual Abuse Behind Bars

Ca’Linda was locked up in a Kentucky county jail on a drug charge when a captain on the corrections staff demanded to see her naked. That was the first abuse. It got worse, quickly.

The captain knew Ca’Linda had an infant daughter, so he didn’t have to use physical force. He just had to threaten to transfer her to a facility where she would never be able to see her daughter again. That was the leverage he used to force Ca’Linda to submit to his routine visits to her cell, where he would fondle her and, eventually, rape her.

Ca’Linda did what most inmates do not: she lodged a complaint. But after an investigation affirmed her charges, Ca’Linda’s rapist wasn’t fired. He was given the option to resign.

Ca’Linda was transfered to another facility. There, the sexual abuse began again. As before, the perpetrator was an officer on the correctional staff, this time a lieutenant. And as before, demands to see her naked quickly escalated into physical assault. When Ca’Linda reported her second abuser, the pattern repeated itself: rather than being terminated, he was suspended, then re-assigned to another part of the facility. Eventually he was fired for a sexual offense involving someone else.

Today, Ca’Linda, who was also abused as a child, is emotionally and psychologically crippled. Her abusers walk free. There is little that is remarkable in this story. It’s simply the day-to-day reality of the American prison system.

More than 200,000 inmates are sexually abused every year in American jails and prisons, usually by corrections staff, often routinely. Typically they are targeted for being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, or in some other way vulnerable and alone. Their lives are shattered by the long-term consequences of rape: PTSD, depression, drug addiction and suicidal ideation.

Boa Smith was imprisoned when she was 20 years old. She’s spent the majority of her life so far behind bars. “The officers did what they wanted,” Smith says. “They sexually harassed us all the time – exposing themselves, trying to coerce us into sex with them, pulling blankets off us at night to see if they could catch us without clothes. They just laughed about it. It was part of life.”

One day, Smith was raped by an officer in the walk-in freezer. She sat down on a palette of ice cream and cried, which at the time was all she could really do. “Back then you didn’t get help,” she says. “You just shut up and dealt with it.”

“It’s hard to describe what it’s like to live with that kind of fear,” she continues. “It was with me all the time. I could feel it in my gut. I was on my guard 24 hours a day, ready to defend my life. I had to be. Those officers could do anything they wanted to me, and I knew it.”

Just Detention International is a human rights organization devoted to ending the epidemic of sexual assault behind bars. JDI seeks remedies in long-term policy changes; in the short term, it facilitates outreach to prisoners to help them cope with their anguish.

A large part of the emotional trauma of sexual assault is the fact or the perception of being socially isolated. The sense that one is alone in one’s suffering is common among survivors of rape in the outside world; behind bars, that sense is compounded by the reality of both physical and social seclusion. It’s nearly impossible to heal when you’re completely alone in your pain.

Every holiday season, JDI organizes a holiday greeting card campaign, inviting members of the public to write a sentence to an inmate who has suffered from sexual abuse, letting them know that they are not beyond the reach of human empathy. These cards save lives — literally. JDI has heard from scores of inmates who were brought back from the brink of suicide simply by receiving a holiday card from a compassionate stranger, or were encouraged to stand up for themselves.

“When I decided that I was going to do something about what had happened to me, I knew it was going to be a hard fight,” explains Joe, a formerly incarcerated rape survivor. “Hearing that strangers cared about me was what gave me the backbone to keep going and keep fighting.”

This year, JDI aims to collect 10,000 cards. It takes no more work to fill one out than it takes to write a tweet; as on Twitter, the limit to each message is 140 characters, and you can fill it out online, at JDI’s website. Volunteers transcribe every electronically submitted note into a hand-written holiday card, which is then delivered to a rape survivor behind bars.

These cards will not end the ongoing and systemic crisis of rape in the criminal justice system. But for their recipients, they will help resolve the immediate emotional crises they face as individual survivors of sexual assault, alone in prison during the holidays — crises that will otherwise lead to withdrawal, depression, and possibly suicide. It’s the smallest effort one could possibly make that could actually result in saving a life.

Smith’s life was transformed by JDI’s advocacy, and now she’s beginning it anew. “This holiday season, for the first time in almost 30 years, I’ll be celebrating with friends and family on the outside,” says Smith. “I was granted parole back in June, and I was released last week. I know that there are thousands of men and women, just like me, who are struggling to heal from sexual abuse and who need to know that they haven’t been forgotten, and that their voice matters.”

Visit JDI to spend 60 seconds helping to save a life.

Follow Leighton on Twitter or at Dog Park Media.

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Leighton Woodhouse

Leighton Woodhouse

Leighton Woodhouse is a partner and co-founder of Dog Park Media: