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The Sexual Abuse-to-Prison Pipeline

At the Intersections of Race, Gender, and Mass Incarceration

Over the past couple of years, sexual violence in America has received much more attention as the issue of sexual assault on college campuses has exploded into the mainstream consciousness. As the public, students, and higher education institutions continue to grapple with this epidemic, the Human Rights Project for Girls reminds us with their recently released study, The Sexual Abuse To Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story, that sexual violence does not impact only college age youth. It impacts young girls, particularly young girls of color (primarily African-Americans, Latinas, and Native Americans) as well as youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) or gender non-conforming (GNC). Young girls of color and LGBT/GNC girls are at a particularly high risk because the justice system punishes youth of color and youth who do not conform to gender norms much more harshly than their white heterosexual counterparts.

What does sexual abuse have to do with incarceration?

Experiencing sexual abuse puts girls at enormous risk for arrest and incarceration. When girls are arrested, it is rarely because they have committed a violent crime. More often than not, they are arrested because they have become truant, run away, or engage in substance abuse (which are called status offenses for youth under 18). Why did they stop going to school or run away from home? The answer, in many cases, is that girls are running away from abusive situations. They are then arrested and locked up for running away.  This is the cycle that is the sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline. At the root of this cycle is sexual violence. The reactions girls have to this violence — which they are punished for — are merely coping behaviors.

Wait, so…they are victims of sexual abuse, and they run away to escape the abuse, but running away is a crime, so they get arrested?

Yep. That’s what is so unjust about all of this. Girls become involved with the juvenile justice system because of the way they have responded to the trauma of sexual abuse. But running away, truancy, and substance abuse are all common and understandable reactions to abuse and ought to be treated as warning signs and NOT criminalized.

The juvenile justice system does not have a great history of adequately addressing trauma. In fact, the reason why the sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline is considered a cycle is that young girls often end up right back whether they started. First, they are victims of sexual violence. Then, they engage in coping behaviors that result in their incarceration. Next, they are subject to the traumatic experience of incarceration itself with very limited access to services. Finally, they are released back into the initially abusive environment, where they once again engage in the same trauma coping behaviors. And what do you think happens then? They are arrested again. Rinse and Repeat. And Repeat. And Repeat.

Well, this is a bit overwhelming. What are we supposed to do?

It sure is overwhelming.  The thing about responding to social injustice is that there’s never just one solution. There are people who are doing a lot of work to change laws and policies that negatively impact the lives of youth who are victims of sexual violence. And that’s a good thing. But there are also things that we can do as social workers, community educators, crisis intervention specialists, and community members.

Acknowledge that sexual violence impacts everyone across race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

Make the connections. Child sexual abuse is a problem. The mass incarceration of people of color in this country is a problem. These two problems are connected. There are some organizations that have analyzed the connections between the prison system and sexual violence.

Respond appropriately. Sexual violence is not just about the act itself. It brings with it many repercussions that are faced primarily by the victims and not nearly enough by the perpetrators. We need to make sure that the aftermath of sexual violence is not as traumatic as — or MORE traumatic than — the act itself.

Look deeper. What we see as defiant or undesirable behavior on the part of youth are often responses to and symptoms of trauma. Take the time to figure out what is really going on instead of witnessing a behavior and immediately labeling it as problematic.

Speak out. Find and contact your representative today! Join Rights4Girls in telling our members of Congress that child sex trafficking and gender-based violence against young women and girls must end now.

I mean it when I say that we can end sexual violence. But it’s going to take all of us working together to make a change.

Dolores Chandler recently joined the Center as our Prevention Coordinator. As a member of the Community Education team, they coordinate our StartStrong program, working to prevent peer-to-peer perpetration of violence among adolescents.

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