Originally Published May 21, 2020
The #MeToo movement started as a simple awareness campaign. But the message resonated with a lot of people that it has become a worldwide movement in just a few years. And now it has reached the people that needed it the most: incarcerated women.
For centuries, women have been subjected to sexual harassment and abuse. Most of the time, the perpetrator is someone who has direct authority over them. From being treated like a chattel by their husbands to bosses who constantly make a pass at them, the abuse can happen both at home and at work. It has gone on for so long that it has become a cultural norm.
This culture of abuse and harassment has penetrated all levels of society. It victimizes women from all walks of life: from the educated elites to homeless single mothers. But the abuse is even more pronounced for those who are at the lower end of the spectrum.
Since these abuses rob the victim of self-worth, many women choose to remain silent. Those who tried to speak up were ridiculed or branded as a pariah. As such, sexual abuses and harassments remain a taboo topic in society.
When the #MeToo movement came, it empowered women to speak up. It shook long-held sexist beliefs and forced many to reexamine their opinions on issues affecting women. It gave women the opportunity to stand in unity and fight for themselves. In some circles, the fight is more about equality and justice. But for women in prison, it has become a fight for self-preservation.
THE PRISON RAPE CULTURE
We’ve all heard stories of prisoners getting sexually assaulted by the prison staff or fellow prisoners. These stories offer us a glimpse of what really is going on behind prison bars. But the prevalence of sexual harassment in our prisons is much worse than what some people would have us believe. It’s become so embedded in prison life that there’s even a term for it: rape culture.
Almost all women prisoners have gone through some form of sexual harassment at some point. But their circumstances prevent them from speaking up against it or fighting their abusers. Not when their abusers are the prison officers themselves.
A report by the Human Rights Watch revealed that being incarcerated in US prisons can be terrifying for women. They cannot escape their abusers. Even their mere presence serves a continuous reminder of the abuse they’ve been through.
The report also found that prison officers used not only threats and physical force to coerce the victims. They also use their authority to give or deny goods and privileges to the inmates. For example, if they give in to their advances, they’ll be rewarded with more food. If they don’t, they can be thrown in solitary for various made-up reasons.
Sexual abuse victims in prisons also often have no legal recourse against their abusers. Grievance procedures (if any) are usually ineffective and biased towards the victim. Instead of investigating the perpetrators, the complainant is usually just transferred to another facility. This effectively sweeps the crime neatly under the rug and the abusers are rarely held accountable for their actions. It’s a system-wide cover-up that enforces the stigma towards victims of sexual abuse.
HOW THE #METOO MOVEMENT IS EMPOWERING WOMEN IN PRISONS
Though the #MeToo movement quickly caught on in the outside world, it progressed slowly in women’s prisons.
Being subjected to constant sexual abuse can do a number on someone’s psychological orientation. It leaves the victim’s self-confidence in tatters and makes them feel powerless. Over time, it wrecks their self-worth. So when someone tells them they deserve better, the concept won’t be too easy to accept for them.
But the landscape is changing. With support from the outside, many women inmates are now breaking their silence.
Writing for HuffPost, a former inmate revealed what it’s like to be a victim of sexual abuse in prison. She detailed her own personal experience with perverted prison officers. She even recounted an incident where she was raped while dumping food in a compacter behind the mess hall. The rapist was a police officer who had been constantly making advances at her. He was never punished. Nobody would have believed her if she complained anyway.
Women like her inspired others to share their story too. And slowly, things are looking up for these women.
In early 2019, a police officer in Los Angeles was found guilty of sexually abusing three inmates. He was sentenced to two years in prison and ordered to pay a $5,000 special assessment. It isn’t much but it’s better than nothing.
A federal corrections officer in New York was also sentenced to 10 years in prison for four counts of sexual abuse. He was also ordered to register as a sexual offender.
These convictions give us hope that with the #MeToo movement, the abuses would end for all the incarcerated women around the world.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Judy Ponio is a firm believer in the power of sharing knowledge. Having extensive experience in the prison industry, she wants to share what she knows with the world. Judy also loves to write about political and legal topics.