The Corrections Field: A Sexual Assault Advocate’s Perspective

The Corrections Field: A Sexual Assault Advocate’s Perspective

June 24, 2013 | Jennifer Feicht, PREA Coordinator, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections

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As a sexual assault advocate for more than 20 years, I never envisioned myself ever working in the corrections field. However, with the implementation of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) standards, I have found a new and challenging area of the anti-sexual violence movement where there is a great deal of work to do.

As a sexual assault advocate for more than 20 years, I never envisioned myself ever working in the corrections field. However, with the implementation of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) standards, I have found a new and challenging area of the anti-sexual violence movement where there is a great deal of work to do.

Most sexual assault advocates’ work is based in an empowerment philosophy: it is our job to provide advocacy, accompaniment, and support to victims of sexual violence of all ages. So when one of my mentors offered me a position in our state coalition to work with the Department of Corrections, I have to say that I was a more than a little nervous. Up to that point, my only experience working with corrections had been in county facilities and the environment was very regimented, closed, and uninviting. From my advocate perspective, it was the extreme opposite of my philosophical viewpoint. How was I ever going to work with corrections and make any meaningful change?

Corrections staff have a difficult job to do, but since I have started working with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, I have seen that most of the staff with whom I have contact have the desire to take sexual abuse in their facilities seriously and to try to change how it is handled. So when I really looked at the situation and became more educated on the corrections field, I realized that we both have the same goal: to eliminate sexual violence in the corrections setting. Even though the goal is the same, our two philosophies approach the problem from opposite ends of the spectrum.

Of course, PREA has precipitated a quicker reaction to this serious situation, but that doesn’t mean that all corrections staff has immediately addressed the problem of sexual violence. It does mean that there are changes that need to be made in corrections to address this serious situation. Changes to assist victims of sexual violence in the corrections setting comes in many forms such as reevaluating housing procedures, work and programming placement, access to services, security, and investigations, just to name a few. But without a doubt, my experience is that the biggest and most difficult of those changes that need to happen is culture change.

The culture in a correctional facility is one of a paramilitary focus. It functions in that manner because of the need to keep care, custody, and control in the forefront of how the facilities operate on a daily basis. Housing up to 4,000 or more convicted people in a confined space is a juggling act, to say the least. These inmates come to the correctional facility with physical, mental, and/or psychological issues. In many cases, the inmates come into the facility with little or no education and low IQ scores. Add all of these elements together and what you have is a vulnerable population that is now in one location to prey on one another for extended periods of time.

So as an advocate, how do I show corrections staff that sexual violence issues are just as important to all these other issues that the inmates are dealing with? This is especially true when our society seems to put such little emphasis on protecting those individuals in correctional facilities.

PREA provides a great basis for starting this important dialogue with corrections staff. The emphasis that PREA puts on providing education and training of staff, inmates, volunteers, and contractors goes a long way to starting those culture change conversations that are so essential to eliminating sexual violence in the corrections field.

Inmates need to know it is important to tell someone what is happening. They need to know that this is not part of their punishment. They also need to know that there are people out there who are willing and able to help them deal with the abuse.

Staff need to know that they can no longer turn a blind eye to things that are happening on their watch, whether the abuse is by inmates or other staff members. They need to know the effects that this abuse has on the victim/survivor and how it impacts the prison society, and society as a whole when these victims/survivors are released. Nearly 95% of incarcerated persons in the United States are released into the general society. They will become our neighbors, friends, and coworkers. If we don’t help victims/survivors deal with the abuse while they are incarcerated, it is going to cost a lot more to deal with when they are released back out into society.

It is my job as an advocate for the anti-sexual violence movement and as the PREA coordinator to provide the victims/survivors with the support and services that they need to function in whatever society they are in. Since that point, more than six years ago when I was asked if I wanted to work with corrections, I have learned a great deal about the corrections field and have tried to provide an advocate’s perspective to those corrections staff whom I now work with on a daily basis.

Jennifer Feicht is the PREA Coordinator for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. She has more than 20 years of experience as a sexual assault advocate.