Send a Holiday Card to a Prison Rape Survivor

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Dec. 26 2012 9:45 AM

Send a Holiday Card to a Prison Rape Survivor

Arizona Jail
An inmate held inside the Maricopa County 'tent city' jail carries his laundry May 3, 2010, in Phoenix, Arizona.

Photo by PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

Today, we interrupt our Newtown-and-NRA-related programming to bring you an important holiday message about prison rape. For most of us, our familiarity with prison rape begins and ends with tasteless jokes and half the plotlines from the HBO series Oz. But for actual prisoners, prison rape is a real and persistent problem. A 2012 Bureau of Justice Statistics report found that “9.6 percent of former state prisoners reported one or more incidents of sexual victimization” during their most recent stint behind bars. Its preponderance speaks to a systemic problem with America’s penal system.

It’s important to note that the study centered on former prisoners, because even if a rape victim leaves prison—and according to the BJS, 95 percent of prisoners are eventually released—he or she often finds it hard to forget the trauma. The BJS report found that, after leaving prison, “72 percent of victims of inmate-on-inmate sexual victimization said they felt shame or humiliation, and 56 percent said they felt guilt. Seventy-nine percent of unwilling victims of staff sexual misconduct said they felt shame or humiliation, and 72 percent said they felt guilt.”


As one survivor of prison rape put it:

Getting raped destroys you from the inside out, and it takes a part of you and puts it where you can’t reach it. My momma quit writing me because she found out I was married to another man in here. She told me I was sick and she did not want to write anymore. And she stopped. See, she knows I got raped, but she doesn’t understand how I’m surviving now. I ran to another man and married him so I wouldn’t get raped again. My thoughts are so crazy on this; at times I do not understand them. The fear is so great in my heart.

Prison rape doesn’t just bring on mental health consequences. Prisons are hotbeds of HIV, Hepatitis C, and other STDs, and once a rape victim contracts these diseases, they don’t go away upon release. As a 2009 report from the anti-prison rape organization Just Detention International put it, “men and women who did not receive testing, counseling, and treatment in prison are unlikely to have the knowledge, skills, or access to the resources needed upon release to protect themselves and their loved ones.” In other words, the odds are good that they’ll be passing these diseases on to their free-world sexual partners.

In 2003, Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act, the first major legislative attempt to address this issue. The act provided funding for research, created a National Prison Rape Reduction Commission, and directed all prison officials to take a zero-tolerance approach to rape within their institutions.

There are also various non-profits working to reduce sexual assault in prisons. One such group is Just Detention International, which “seeks to end sexual abuse in all forms of detention.” JDI has launched a project called “Words of Hope” that allows you to send a holiday message of support to prisoners who’ve suffered sexual abuse behind bars.

I’m sure some inmates probably just throw the cards away. But for those who don’t, these messages show that there are people who neither judge nor blame them for what happened.

Still skeptical? Ask this guy about the good a holiday card can do:

I like this project a lot, not least because I enjoy holiday cards more than anybody else I know. I got an unexpected one the other week, and it just about made my day. If you want to participate, you can go to the Words of Hope website and send a message up until December 31st. I did.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at



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