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A Victory in the Fight to Stop Prisoner Rape

In 2012, Cornelius, a prisoner at a Florida state prison, wrote a letter to a nearby rape crisis center. Cornelius had been sexually assaulted multiple times while incarcerated. The first time was a gang rape that had happened 17 years earlier at a boot camp, when he was just 19 years old. Roughly a decade later, at a different facility, he was raped again. In his letter, Cornelius wrote about his history of abuse; he asked for support in coping with the pain he was still experiencing.

Maria, the crisis counselor who received Cornelius’ letter, desperately wanted to help him. But she couldn’t. (To protect confidentiality, Cornelius and Maria are both pseudonyms.) Maria’s organization – like the vast majority of victim services programs nationwide – relied on funding from the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA), established in 1994. And, per federal guidelines, VOCA funds could not be used to assist any person who is incarcerated.

The VOCA funding restriction targeted a group of people who already face massive barriers to getting quality help. Medical and mental health care in prison are notoriously poor and underfunded. Most prisoner rape survivors don’t even attempt to access the subpar services that are available, knowing all too well that coming forward puts them at risk for retaliation. Instead, many survivors try to seek help outside their facility, from counselors who are not affiliated with the institution that failed to keep them safe. Indeed, by the time Cornelius was turned down by Maria’s agency, he had already reached out to more than ten other organizations asking for help.

 With stories like Cornelius’ in mind, Just Detention International (JDI, formerly Stop Prisoner Rape) has long fought to ensure that incarcerated survivors of sexual abuse get the support services they need and deserve. We had a breakthrough in 2003 with the passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), the first-ever federal civil law to address this issue. At the urging of JDI and a coalition of other advocacy groups, the PREA standards – finalized by the Department of Justice in 2012 – required detention facilities to collaborate with rape crisis centers to provide high-quality services to prisoner rape survivors.

 The notion that rape crisis counselors could deliver services inside a prison might have seemed radical at the time, but advocates had already proved that it could work. In 2005, through a JDI initiative, two California state prisons took the unprecedented step of allowing community-based counselors to provide on-site confidential services to incarcerated survivors.

 The California project was a major success that lent momentum to the push to allow crisis counselors inside prisons. But the VOCA funding ban remained in place, stymieing advocates who otherwise were eager to help – like Maria. Fortunately, the Department of Justice began the process of overturning the rule shortly after the release of the PREA standards. The process took far longer than it should have, and the ban’s removal was not made official until July 2016, but the delay does not diminish the importance of this historic achievement. After years of advocacy, survivors of sexual abuse like Cornelius will now have greater access to counseling services, while the counselors themselves, like Maria, will be better equipped to provide them.

 Jesse Lerner-Kinglake is the communications director for Just Detention International (; he provided this article exclusively for PLN.

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