Incarcerated Survivors of Sexual Assault Face Retraumatization and Barriers to Healing

Students and community members stopped by the Orange County Rape Crisis Center in Chapel Hill on April 23 to write letters to incarcerated survivors with messages of caring and support during Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

On April 23rd, we hosted a letter writing event directed to incarcerated survivors of sexual violence here at the OCRCC office. It was an evening to hold and care for survivors who, due to the combined tragedies of incarceration and sexual violence, could not be in the room with us. Noname’s music underscored conversations about the logistics of supervised and unsupervised probation (we were trying to understand what Cyntoia Brown, the sex trafficking survivor who recently had a successful campaign to commute her sentence, would experience when she is finally out of prison this August). People drew pictures and wrote messages of love and support inside beautifully hand-printed cards. Each survivor on our list got at least three cards!

We held this event because we know that there are particular barriers to paths of healing and recovery to survivors who are incarcerated. Survivors of sexual violence can be arrested for actions they took to navigate their survival in dangerous and abusive situations, for racist criminalization of their trauma processing, or on charges that are not directly related to their survivor status. Once incarcerated, survivors may have difficulty accessing services that are available to survivors on the outside. Access to mental and physical health services is limited, if truly available at all, in prisons and detention centers, and opportunities to speak with a trained professional or companion are limited. Phone services and letters all cost money, and are monitored, meaning that disclosing survivor status in a private letter to a friend or companion may mean inadvertently disclosing survivor status to all prison staff, prompting an investigation the survivor may not be ready for. Simply the barriers to movement can be another difficulty: survivors who are incarcerated can’t simply take a walk or go get a cup of tea when they experience triggers or crises.

The experience of being incarcerated can be traumatizing in itself, and particularly so for survivors of sexual violence. The loss of privacy, lack of control over what happens to their body, prevention from having their own resources, and prevailing culture of disbelief and suspicion that incarcerated people face can mimic some characteristics of abusive relationships. Survivors may be made vulnerable to triggers or flashbacks, or first-time victimization during routine pat-downs, strip searches, and monitored showers. Additionally, we know that sexual violence can be perpetrated in prisons and detention centers, and in North Carolina, it is extremely rare for a survivor of sexual violence in prison to receive institutional assistance after reporting sexual violence.

Thousands of incarcerated people are impacted by sexual violence: 2012 study by the Bureau of Statistics (BJS) found that 86% of incarcerated women are survivors of sexual violence. Another 2012 survey found that 10% of formerly incarcerated people had been sexually abused during their most recent period of incarceration, which, due to the BJS’ survey methods, is likely to be an underrepresentation of the actual rate. Thousands of people are being retraumatized and denied access to services through the cycles of sexual violence and incarceration.

Surveys show that 86% of incarcerated women are survivors of sexual violence. Sometimes, survivors are re-traumatized. The prevailing culture of disbelief and suspicion that incarcerated people face can mimic some characteristics of abusive relationships. Writing letters and signing petitions are two ways that allies can show survivors that they are not alone.

So, what can we do? Like with any survivor of sexual violence, offering a believing and supportive presence can be a powerful step on the path to recovery. Often, the least expensive and most accessible method of communication with incarcerated people is by mail. Through letters, we can let survivors know that they are heard, and provide crisis counseling and safety planning that we could offer to clients on the phone. If you would like the list of survivors we used on April 23rd to send a message of support, email me and I’ll send it along!

Another action we can take is signing petitions! Several of the survivors we wrote on the 23rd have petitions to the governor to commute, or decrease, their sentences. One incarcerated survivor, Brandy Scott, is a Black transgender woman who has organized support and advocacy for other incarcerated queer and trans people, and has written an after-school curriculum for gang members. You can sign Brandy’s petition here, and find other petitions for survivors here.

Finally, I’d like to highlight that incarcerated people are the ones taking the lead in fighting for their right to heal and be free from traumatizing conditions. One of my favorite zines, Queer Fire, shows a history of incarcerated queer people organizing against sexual violence in the 1970s, and this blog post from prisoner Michael Kimble describes organizing against sexual violence in Alabama prisons today. I’d encourage you to check out these readings!  The conditions of sexual violence and incarceration may seem daunting, but there are strong communities of survivors, incarcerated people, and allies, who are working together to create a world that is safer for survivors and free from sexual violence.


By Online Help Assistant
Orange County Rape Crisis Center