Supporting Survivors of Prison Rape

Last week I got an email from Jesse Lerner-Kinglake at Just Detention International, a health and human rights organization that “seeks to end sexual abuse in all forms of detention.” She thought Toast readers might be interested in participating in their holiday campaign to send letters and cards to prisoners who have experienced sexual assault.

Last year, JDI delivered 10,000+ unique holiday messages to incarcerated survivors – a record total that we hope to surpass this year. In their responses to us, survivors talked about how much the gesture meant to them.  Ca’Linda, who was raped at two Kentucky detention facilities and received cards last year, put it like this: “When I read the cards, they brought me tears of joy. I can’t thank you enough for letting me know I’m not forgotten.”

Jesse and I got the chance to chat for a few minutes about the campaign. There are some links below about getting involved, should you care to do so.

1. Could you tell me a little bit more about the background of the project and the people involved?

We get countless letters from survivors every year, but here’s a particularly compelling account from Joe Booth.

While serving time at a California prison, Joe, who is openly gay, was raped over four straight days by his cellmate. Joe’s cellmate was a known predator, with a history of targeting gay inmates.

His full story, including the neglect by staff at the facility, is published on our website.

There’s an inspiring side to Joe’s story. Since his release, he’s been working closely with JDI to make sure that no one ever has to endure this kind of abuse. Joe also received holiday cards while he was in prison, and last year we shot a short video of him talking about what they meant: 

Jan Lastocy also has an inspiring story. She was raped many times over the course of many months by a staff member at a Michigan prison. Her chilling account of the ordeal is also on our website, and she published an op-ed in the Detroit Free Press after the release of the Prison Rape Elimination Act standards, in May 2012.

Jan, like Joe, has become a committed advocate since her release. Also like Joe, she sends many thoughtful holiday messages to survivors through our campaign.

2. How did this project get started? How long have you been involved? How has it grown since its inception? 

We started this project because so many incarcerated survivors would tell us how the holidays are the loneliest, most depressing time of year. And this seemed like a simple way for people on the outside to offer a bit of compassion to those men and women. The campaign began in 2010, and it’s grown every year since. In our first year, we received 600 messages – last year, the number grew to an amazing 10,000+. (That was my first year at JDI, though I can’t take credit for the huge leap in cards.)

3. I’m sure loads of our readers will be really eager to get involved, but might not be sure how to start. What do you recommend for someone writing their first card who isn’t quite sure of what to say?

Excellent question! For Joe, simply knowing that there were people – even strangers – willing to take a moment to wish him well during the holidays was life-changing. Really.

So, I’d recommend writing a few words that simply convey that the person cares about the survivor, and is thinking about him/her over the holidays. It will mean a lot–like it did for Joe. And if people are still feeling stuck, we offer short prompts on the website.

Lastly, I wanted to share with you a wonderful example, which came in yesterday:  “On December 24 at 11pm (NY time), know that I will be sending you, just YOU, all the love in my heart.” Lovely, right?

4. In addition to writing cards, what are some ways our readers can get involved in supporting survivors of prison rape?

Yes, absolutely. For one, we encourage people to check out our website and learn about the issue. Sexual abuse behind bars is a crisis that’s shrouded in myth, or it remains something that people joke about. We feel that such attitudes about prisonerrape are an obstacle to stopping it. Also, people can volunteer at their local rape crisis center. JDI has a state-by-state resource guide listing agencies that provide essential services to prisoner rape survivors.

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