Making Culture Change a Reality

Making Culture Change a Reality

June 10, 2013 | Boa Smith

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Boa Smith served 29 years in prison before her release in November 2012. A survivor of physical and sexual abuse prior to her incarceration, Boa endured additional years of sexual abuse and harassment by prison staff. She served as a Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) and HIV/AIDS peer educator, teaching inmates about their right to be free from sexual violence. Boa is currently working to set up a program that will offer care to the pets of people in recovery.

Boa Smith served 29 years in prison before her release in November 2012. A survivor of physical and sexual abuse prior to her incarceration, Boa endured additional years of sexual abuse and harassment by prison staff. She served as a Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) and HIV/AIDS peer educator, teaching inmates about their right to be free from sexual violence. Boa is currently working to set up a program that will offer care to the pets of people in recovery. She is also a member of Just Detention International’s Survivor Council.

 

When I first arrived at the California Institution for Women (CIW) in 1985, the facility was a disaster. Inmates were sexually abused and harassed regularly—very often by staff—and everyone was too scared to speak out. I used to refer to the facility as the “Wild West.” That’s how bad it was.

In those days, inmates who were sexually assaulted couldn’t get help—and they didn’t know about their rights. I certainly didn’t. After an officer abused me, I felt there was nothing I could do about it. It was the way things were at the facility—an ingrained part of its culture.

But culture change is possible: all it takes is good leadership and safe practices. When CIW hired a new warden who made it clear that a safe prison was a priority, it was a turning point. Words like “zero tolerance” started being used, which had never happened before. It was around this time that I first heard about the Prison Rape Elimination Act, a groundbreaking law to stop sexual violence in detention.

One of the warden’s initiatives was to create an inmate education program. Partnering with Just Detention International, an advocacy group, the facility began setting up inmate-led workshops on sexual abuse. For the first time, women were taught about how to stay safe from sexual abuse and how to get help. Most importantly, we were taught we had a right to be safe.

I volunteered for the program because I wanted to be a part of the change. As a peer educator, I learned to be a leader. I taught other women about sexual abuse prevention and spoke openly about my abuse, which I wasn’t able to do in the past.

The impact on the facility was amazing. The classes taught women about the many forms of sexual misconduct. Women began to tell their stories of abuse—experiences that they previously felt were a normal part of prison life or had been too scared to share. Staff, too, began to act differently toward us. They treated us with more respect.

After 29 years at CIW, I was finally released last year. But I’m still active in educating people about preventing sexual violence in detention. I’ve taken what I learned as a peer educator and use that knowledge to train advocates and corrections officials, so that they too can help change the culture of their facilities.

 

To learn more about NCCD’s work on the National PREA Resource Center (PRC), click here to read this month’s NCCD Now feature on the PRC’s efforts to assist correctional agencies across the country to implement the national PREA standards.