January 28, 2020
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‘But what if they’re lying?’ How Maine serves rape victims in jail

Rights Reserved 1536
Rights Reserved 1536

“But what if they’re lying? Aren’t you ever worried about that? What if they’re just trying to get attention?”

As Maine’s sexual assault support centers are increasingly serving incarcerated survivors in the state’s correctional facilities, several people have asked me these questions.

By and large, however, I know that incarcerated survivors are telling the truth. Incarcerated survivors are no different from other survivors when it comes to reporting the violence they suffer (except that they may report even less). No, I’m not worried that they’re lying.

I’m worried that survivors aren’t able – or feel as though they aren’t able – to access the services they need and deserve.

Although the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) was signed into law in 2003, standards to implement PREA weren’t handed down until 2012. In 2014, Maine certified that it was working toward compliance with PREA standards. Only two states in the U.S. were certified as PREA compliant – New Jersey and New Hampshire.

It’s hard to tell how many inmates in Maine have experienced sexual violence because we can’t be sure of how many assaults go unreported. Sexual assault is already the most underreported crime in the United States. In correctional facilities, it is even more so.

Only 1 in 10 incarcerated victims have sought services connected to the sexual violence they experience. We know that 95% of those who are incarcerated return to our communities, many without processing the violence they endured while incarcerated.

In many cases, perpetrators are corrections staff – the very people whose job it is to keep inmates safe. This adds additional complications: How do you report sexual violence when the person you’re supposed to report to is the person assaulting you? Or their best friend?

An inmate wishing to report sexual violence has several avenues available to them – many more than before PREA was enacted. They can call the PREA hotline, which is run by the Maine Department of Corrections, or they can tell someone in their correctional facility. The Department of Corrections and county jails are working to develop a third reporting option – one where survivors can write to another facility and report the assaults perpetrated against them.

Whether or not someone wishes to report the violence they’ve experienced, sexual assault advocates are available to provide support and options to incarcerated survivors. More and more incarcerated survivors are coming forward as they learn about the advocacy services available to them. An incarcerated woman in southern Maine told the advocate she’s working with that she’s so happy because “finally someone will listen.”

Sometimes that’s all it takes.

Many think that sexual violence is merely a byproduct of incarceration. A lot of people struggle with the idea that prisoners who have been raped deserve services. However, that leads us down a dangerous path of deciding who the perfect victim is and who services are meant for.

No one deserves to be raped. All survivors deserve services. As Sexual Assault Awareness Month draws to a close, let’s remember that not everyone who needs services can access them, and not all survivors can tell us about the sexual violence they’re suffering.

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