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Chandra Bozelko: #MeToo missing on prison rape

Chandra Bozelko
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Incarcerated women are 30 times more likely to be raped than free women, according to figures cited by The Nation in a 2015 article. Since July, reports of rampant sexual abuse in women’s prisons have appeared in California, Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, Missouri, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Vermont.

And there hasn’t been one word about any of this from the leaders of the #MeToo movement. It seems like the population that needs the #MeToo movement the most has been forgotten by it.

These recent reports aren’t the first time that #MeToo passed over explosive news of sexual violence. In July 2018, the Bureau of Justice Statistics revealed that reports of sexual assault in prisons and jails more than tripled between 2011 and 2015.

While the report didn’t break down the data by gender, news that rates of reported sexual assault were multiplying anywhere should attract the attention of the largest and most prominent anti-sexual violence campaign. Yet leaders of the #MeToo movement - leadership is both decentralized and loosely defined within the organization - said nothing about it. Alyssa Milano, the former child star who’s been recognized as one of #MeToo’s leaders, tweeted a link to a story about the BJS report several months later without comment.

In April, when the Department of Justice released a report concluding that rape and homicide of men in Alabama prisons was so severe that it violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, survivors faced similar silence.

Tarana Burke knows Alabama. She founded the #MeToo movement there, in Selma. She slammed Alabama lawmakers in May for passing a restrictive abortion law, posting for her 144,000 Instagram followers that abortion rights are survivors’ rights.

Yet the DOJ report that received coverage from The New York Times, NPR and USA TODAY doesn’t appear anywhere in Burke’s - or any of the movement leaders’ - social media feeds. It’s unlikely that they didn’t hear about it. The fact that the victims in the Department of Justice report were men shouldn’t matter. The #MeToo movement says it’s about everyone.

But it really isn’t. It hasn’t excluded incarcerated survivors but it hasn’t exactly embraced those in chains, either. Of all the survivor stories on its site, not one is told by a woman about her experience in a correctional environment.

If #MeToo is about undoing “unchecked accumulations of power” as Burke has said, then correctional centers are ideal for the crusade, locations where it can address both state and interpersonal harm. Thousands upon thousands of people are sexually exploited every year in prisons and jails; they’re part of the state and structural violence affecting women and girls that #MeToo says it wants to dismantle.

Besides, the real problem with prison rape is the credibility impasse. A huge majority of prison reported sexual assault claims go “unsubstantiated,” according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics - as opposed to proven or conclusively disproven - which can be considered shorthand for “disbelieved.”

Inmates are caught at a terrible intersection of cultural attitudes that they deserve to be harmed as part of their punishments, and the fact that they don’t control their own bodies or environment to preserve evidence of the indecency done to them. If sexually assaulted, it will almost always be their word against that of a perpetrator more powerful.

Backing up a complainant’s credibility is #MeToo’s specialty: 425 men were accused of misconduct between October 2017 and October 2018, and 201 of them lost their jobs because of it, according to The New York Times. Eleven people have been criminally charged because of #MeToo’s power; charges remain pending against five of them, including Harvey Weinstein, whose criminal trial started Jan. 6. The only reason anything happened to Weinstein is that the #MeToo movement said to his accusers: “We believe you.”

They need to say it to women in prison. The hashtags happening out here need to head inside before the violence gets even worse.
Chandra Bozelko writes the award-winning blog Prison Diaries. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChandraBozelko and email her at outlawcolumn@gmail.com.