This story is part of Prism’s series on incarceration as gendered violence. Read the rest of the series here.

 For four women and gender-nonconforming people at California’s Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, ongoing sexual violence was a feature of their incarceration. The prison offered scant avenues for protection or holding the perpetrators accountable, so the group took matters into their own hands. In 2015, they began crowdsourcing information and documenting instances of sexual violence, homophobia, and transphobia waged by correctional officers against incarcerated people at the facility.

In November of that year, guards sought retribution for that documentation. 

According to the documenters, correctional officers brutally beat them. The officers stomped on their breasts. They ordered them to strip naked and used scissors to cut off their clothes when they refused. They denied them the chance to use the bathroom, despite one of the women being on her period. They threw the four of them into solitary confinement all while hurling sexist and homophobic slurs and threats.

In 2017, the group of four filed a lawsuit seeking both monetary compensation and injunctive relief. The former would help address the immense trauma they had faced and the latter would, in part, overhaul the grievance mechanisms available to incarcerated survivors of assault by sending those complaints immediately to a third party rather than into the labyrinth of the prison’s internal grievance system.

This lawsuit became the impetus for the development of #MeToo Behind Bars, a broader campaign that seeks to raise public consciousness around the pervasive nature of sexual violence against women, gender-nonconforming people, and transgender people in prison. The campaign organizes rallies and direct actions at California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation facilities. They gather stories and testimonials and prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, they were on track to host a People’s Hearing to brainstorm and consider policy, legislative, and administrative reforms.

While their name and mission ties them to the larger #MeToo movement, Sara Kershner, one of the lead campaign organizers of #MeToo Behind Bars, says there is much room for critique in how that movement currently frames violence.

“This is a campaign to also encourage the #MeToo movement to look at violence not just as incidents and acts of individuals, but as something that gets created by institutions and our society—and that the state itself is one of the greatest perpetrators of that kind of violence,” said Kershner.

“How many complaints get lost?”

Internal grievance systems like those at Chowchilla are one of the key pieces of infrastructure that allows such violence to go unchecked. Those systems are undergirded by both state and federal legislation.

In 2003, Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which sought to address prison sexual violence through a multistep process that involved national data collection and then the development of new state standards. These standards include training staff on how to stop sexual assaults, the adoption of new reporting mechanisms, and providing survivors with rape kits. But critics also note that PREA is often used against prisoners, rather than perpetrators who are correctional officers. The legislation limits incarcerated people’s ability to take their cases to court by requiring that they first exhaust all steps of their facility’s internal grievance system—a system that can lead them to face intimidation from prison staff, just as it did at Chowchilla.

In California, this internal grievance system is known as a 602 complaint. Kershner points out that this particular reporting mechanism is deeply flawed.

“So you’re filing complaints to the prison, about the prison and the prison is supposed to investigate it,” said Kershner.

Incarcerated Californians filing complaints must follow up and file 602’s three times before they are allowed to take their grievance to a third party or file a lawsuit. It’s a process so stringent that Kershner says the court will consider a lawsuit illegitimate if there is no proof of filing three times.

“Now, guess what happens,” said Kershner. “How many complaints get lost? How many complaints don’t get followed up on?”

Even outside of the onerous “exhaustion” requirement, many have noted the PREA has fallen short of its aims. While states who are found to be noncompliant with PREA will lose 5% of their federal prison grant funding, adoption of these standards is still technically voluntary.

Jesse Lerner-Kinglake, communications director at Just Detention International, notes that PREA standards still need to be adopted evenly across facilities nationwide and that the standards alone should be considered the “floor,” or a starting point for deeper work to mitigate sexual violence inside.  

Normalizing violence inside

The problem is widespread. Between 2009 and 2011, women comprised just 13% of the people detained in U.S. jails, but accounted for 67% of all staff-on-inmate sexual victimization, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. A federal study from 2012 found that an estimated 40% of transgender people inside had experienced sexual assault inside prison and jails as well. At youth facilities, sexual assault is also particularly prevalent, with nearly 10% of all incarcerated youth nationwide being assaulted within the first year of their detention.

In the seminal 2003 text Are Prisons Obsolete?, Angela Daviswrites that “the call to abolish the prison as the dominant form of punishment cannot ignore the extent to which the institution of the prison has stockpiled ideas and practices that are hopefully approaching obsolescence in the larger society but that retain all their ghastly vitality behind prison walls.”

The idea that behaviors that have come to be condemned in the “free world” are still normalized and deemed acceptable within prisons is one that rings particularly true in this context. As movements like #MeToo and Time’s Up have launched broad conversations about sexual violence, the public reckoning has largely failed to reach to those inside correctional institutions. The normalization of sexual violence against incarcerated people may explain some of the failure to mobilize.

“Our culture dismisses it as inevitable or a joke, when it is in fact a horrific crime and can shatter lives,” said Lerner-Kinglake.  

At Just Dentention International (JDI), a human rights organization dedicated to ending sexual abuse in carceral insitutions, Lerner-Kinglake works on holding elected officials and prison administration accountable, providing direct services to incarcerated survivors, and also changing how the wider culture talks and thinks about prison rape.

Jokes about prison rape abound in everyday private conversations and within the work of comedians, says Lerner-Kinglake. Pop culture goes a long way toward perpetuating the idea that is inevitable or a deserved fate. For example, it is common in crime dramas for detectives to use the fear of prison rape to coerce confessions or get details from suspects. While Lerner-Kinglake feels that the needle is moving, there are still “decades and decades of culture to change.”

Notably however, jokes or plot devices that play on the idea of prison rape tend to focus exclusively on the sexual assaut of men. As such, the trope is both rooted in homophobia and invisibilizes women’s experiences inside. If anything, sexual assault on incarcerated women is often cuturally considered as less of a threat involving coercion because of the ways the public has linked women’s criminality with their perceived sexual availability. To that end, both the prevalence of offensive jokes about men and prison and the silence around sexual violence against women inside help allow this deeply entrenched form of violence to continue.  

Groups like JDI hope that giving a platform for survivors to share their stories can help catalyze much-needed cultural shifts and stoke a fire within the public to effectuate change. .

“People know about sexual abuse in detention but the magnitude of it gets lost,” said Lerner-Kinglake. “This is a preventable problem and we desperately need to change it if we care about human rights.”

For Kersnher, activists who are already advocating against sexual violence need to more intentionally fold in the concerns of incarcerated people.

“[The #MeToo movement] was being expressed by people who have regular access to social media, which people inside do not have,” said Kersnher. “And then I also think that as a society, we often disregard the human and civil rights of people who are incarcerated as if they don’t have them or deserve them. I think for all those reasons there hasn’t been that solidarity.” 

Tamar Sarai is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.