Rapes and sexual assaults in prisons and jails don’t count.
Literally. These acts of violence are not routinely tabulated into general reports of sexual assault.
The omission appears to indicate that somehow these attacks are less notable than an attack on a university student. College sexual assaults, date rapes and understanding that most people know their attacker are thankfully receiving more attention in recent years. It’s an awareness being forced by Congress, universities, lawsuits and through the laudable efforts of many advocates.
But what allegedly occurred at the Jackson County Regional Correctional Center is far less discussed, at least in nonsalacious ways. Two female inmates were allegedly sexually assaulted. It’s early in the investigation, but what’s known highlights troubling facts.
Women in the nation’s jails, prisons and detention centers are extremely vulnerable. By some estimates, incarcerated women are more likely to be sexually assaulted than women outside of prison.
It’s a compounding issue. The number of women being put into local jails has skyrocketed in recent decades: fourteenfold since 1970. The vast majority, 82 percent, are held for nonviolent charges. More than 85 percent had experienced sexual violence before entering jail, according to an August report by the Vera Institute of Justice.
In addition, jailed women are far more likely to experience sexual victimization than jailed men, the same report found.
No charges have been filed in the local case. But enough concern was raised that all of the women in the regional center were immediately transferred out.
Details are scant so far. One woman told police that three men raped her. Another woman told police she was kissed, groped and then more aggressively touched after she shoved a man off of herself.
The clothing of one of the alleged victims — possibly torn in the attack — was destroyed. Also, her cell was thoroughly cleaned of the feces that were spread throughout it. Police also have said surveillance video shows that three male inmates were able to move freely in the hallway between their own cells and the victims’ cells. It’s unclear if the attack was recorded, as police noted “victims’ cells were not fully on camera.”
How staff didn’t realize that a crime may have occurred before the cell was cleaned and clothing was destroyed is at the top of the list of what needs an answer, followed by why one woman believes that guards were her attackers.
Outside of a person being incapacitated by either alcohol or a drug (willingly or unknowingly ingested), it would be difficult to imagine a more vulnerable situation than being trapped in a cell with a sexual predator nearby.
It should also be understood that the downtown Jackson County Detention Center adjoins the regional center but is a different facility. Both are operated by the Jackson County Corrections Department. The detention center, with a far higher number of inmates, handles people facing state charges. The regional center is for those with municipal violations.
The Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 is developing useful data. Since 2007, it has gathered reports by victims, not solely by administrative accounts.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that in 2011-2012, an estimated 4 percent of state and federal prison inmates and 3.2 percent of jail inmates reported one or more incidents of sexual victimization by either another inmate or staff within the previous 12 months.
Women in the nation’s jails differ from men. Prisons and jails were largely developed with men in mind. New research is showing that procedures like searches, restraints and the use of solitary confinement all may affect the growing number of jailed women differently than men. High rates of previous trauma for the women is one reason.
Consider that people who have experienced trauma often react to new perceived threats by “fighting, fleeing or freezing,” reactions that can bring punishment in jail, the Vera study found.
The outcome of the local allegations should draw attention to the many differences between male and female inmates, not the least being that 80 percent of jailed women are also mothers, often single parents.
Finally, rethink the indifference with which incarcerated people are treated.
Prison rape is casually mixed into pop culture references, as if it were something to be counted on, like bland food in the cafeteria line. Some inmate is going to become another’s sexual property, goes the script. Depictions of shower attacks and gang rapes are familiar to anyone who watches much television.
Too often, this encourages a lackadaisical acceptance of sexual violence. Until people are forced to think about the type of allegations now surrounding Jackson County.