In February, AP News broke the story of rampant sexual violence at the federal correctional institution in Dublin, California. The investigation revealed that officials kept nude photos of women they assaulted, a worker stated that he wanted to get inmates pregnant, and the prison was commonly referred to as “the rape club.” When prisoners attempted to report the abuse, they were subject to retaliation and forced into solitary confinement. While devastating and tragic, these stories are most likely just the tip of the iceberg.
People in prisons, jails, detention centers, and other carceral facilities all across the country are subject to sexual violence, which is blatantly normalized and underreported. Sexual violence thrives in environments where there are vast power imbalances, especially in situations like prisons where incarcerated people are entirely at the mercy of prison officials. With this surplus of power and a population of people frequently forgotten and disregarded, prisons serve as the perfect breeding ground for corrections to engage in sexual assault. While not all officials engage in what is typically defined as sexual violence like the ones in Dublin, officials still facilitate sexual violence by ignoring it and punishing those who come forward.
Even outside of prisons, sexual violence goes largely ignored or dismissed. It wasn’t until the 2017 burst of the #MeToo movement (a hashtag coined by activist Tarana Burke, but was later co-opted and gained popularity by focusing on wealthy white celebrities) that people began to have a regular and open dialogue about sexual violence. It is common for anti-violence movements like #MeToo, or other feminist projects to frequently talk about sexual violence in every place other than prison. This is partly due to our societal obsession with affirming the validity of the carceral state.
Despite the growing number of abolitionists, people in the U.S. overwhelmingly believe that people who are in prison not only deserve to be there, but also don’t deserve to advocate for themselves when it comes to improving conditions inside. Before even ending sexual violence within prisons, an internal reckoning must expose the underlying belief that to many, empathy is only reserved for innocent individuals, meaning that if incarcerated people do not wish to experience assault, they should not engage in behavior that leads to them being arrested in the first place. Of course, this carceral thinking also ignores the vast number of people who are locked up for not being able to pay bail, disabled folks without access to the care they need, and the victims of intimate partner violence who were criminalized by the state for defending themselves against their abusers.
The silence that accompanies sexual violence in prison is also because of how people conceptualize sexual violence. Though blatant victim-blaming is less popular, many people still subconsciously believe that it is on survivors of sexual violence to prevent their abuse by wearing the right clothes, engaging in the right profession (i.e., not sex work), or being born into the socially “correct” class of people. Media discussions around sexual violence are often blatantly racist and ableist, meaning that many survivors still don’t come forward with their experiences. This fear is amplified within prisons, where incarcerated people know they could be subject to retaliation daily, without any repercussions against prison staff. And because we cannot extract anti-Blackness and ableism from the prison industrial complex and carcerality, people are taught to believe that incarcerated people are not defined by humanity largely because they can barely affix humanity or citizenship to Black Americans or disabled folks. When this type of dehumanization occurs, any form of abuse to an oppressed class becomes justifiable and even expected.
Sexual violence is largely about power, the power to do harm without consequences, and the power to control others by ridding them of their agency. Rather than taking individualized stances against sexual violence that are more focused on the victim’s perceived morality than their actual safety, abolitionists are asking people to understand that these cases are part of larger oppressive structures. Maintaining these structures, like misogyny, anti-Blackness, ableism, capitalism, and others, is essential to the maintenance of prisons and carceral responses at large. Not only that, abolitionists are demanding that people realize that a person’s perceived innocence serving as the determining factor for whether or not they are deserving of sexual violence hurts all survivors. Sexual assault is not a well-deserved punishment reserved for certain types of people; it is a violent tool of repression that can completely destabilize the victim. The sooner we recognize ending sexual violence within prisons as a central tenet of organizing, the closer we are to ending this violence at its root. I believe that capitalism distorts the relationships we have to one another, along with our relationships to our bodies. These fissures in our relationships are even more apparent across lines of race, class, gender, ability, and sexuality. Without ending capitalism, imperialism, and the U.S. war machine, I do not believe we will ever see an end to sexual violence, simply because these systems and their actors rely on sexual violence as a tool for domination.
One popular reason people give for being against abolition is the idea that an abolitionist future is “unrealistic.” However, instances like the Dublin prison abuses show that it is even more unrealistic to expect prisons to “hold people accountable” for various types of violence outside of prisons while there is violence taking place within prisons themselves.