Article  Human Dignity  Prison Reform  Sexual Abuse

What Christians can do about sexual abuse in America’s prisons

Sexual abuse in the nation’s federal prisons must be rooted out, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, the Justice Department’s second-highest-ranking leader, recently told prison wardens gathered for a nationwide training event. 

“This is urgent, urgent work,” Monaco told the Associated Press (AP) in an interview. “It’s incumbent upon us as leaders to call that out and make those changes and really be vigilant about it.”

According to the news agency, Peters was hired last year after her predecessor resigned amid mounting pressure from Congress following AP investigations that exposed widespread corruption and misconduct within the prison system. 

Sexual abuse in American prisons is a deeply disturbing issue that continues to fester within the correctional system, despite the enactment of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) in 2003. As followers of Christ, we are called to care for the marginalized and oppressed, and this includes our brothers and sisters behind bars. This article examines the severity of the problem, the factors contributing to its persistence, and the ways in which Christians can engage in solutions grounded in our faith and God’s love.

The scope of the problem

Sexual abuse in American prisons is a grievous sin that affects countless incarcerated individuals. According to a 2018 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were 13.5 allegations of sexual victimization per 1,000 prison inmates and 11.9 per 1,000 jail inmates. This translates to tens of thousands of people suffering from this dehumanizing trauma each year.

Both fellow inmates and correctional staff perpetrate these heinous acts. Of the 1,673 substantiated incidents of sexual victimization in 2018, about 58% were perpetrated by other inmates and 42% by staff. The power dynamics and lack of accountability within prisons often fosters an environment where abuse frequently goes unpunished. Many victims are reluctant to report incidents due to fear of retaliation or the belief that their complaints will be disregarded.

Factors contributing to the prevalence of sexual abuse

Several factors contribute to the high prevalence of sexual abuse in American prisons, including:

Overcrowding: The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, leading to overcrowded and understaffed prisons. Overcrowding exacerbates tensions and increases the likelihood of violence, including sexual assault. It also hampers the ability of correctional staff to effectively monitor inmate behavior and intervene in potentially abusive situations.

Lack of training and oversight: Many correctional officers receive inadequate training on how to identify and respond to sexual abuse. In some cases, they may be unaware of their responsibilities under PREA or may choose to disregard them. The lack of external oversight can also foster an environment in which abuse is tolerated or even encouraged.

Inmate vulnerability: Certain populations are at a heightened risk for sexual victimization, including young inmates and those with mental illnesses. These inmates may be targeted due to their perceived vulnerability or social isolation, making it even more challenging for them to report abuse and receive support.

Retaliation and fear of reporting: Victims often fear retaliation from their abusers or other inmates, discouraging them from reporting incidents. Additionally, they may be concerned that their complaints will not be taken seriously or that they will face further abuse from staff members.

What Christians can do to help

As followers of Christ, we must not turn a blind eye to this crisis but rather engage in solutions grounded in our faith and God’s love. Some possible ways to help include:

Advocating for alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders: Christians can support and advocate for alternative sentencing options, such as community service, drug rehabilitation programs, and mental health treatment, when appropriate and safe in order to help reduce the prison population and alleviate overcrowding. This approach aligns with the Christian belief in redemption and the power of transformative change.

Encouraging training and oversight: Christians can call for comprehensive training of correctional staff on the identification and prevention of sexual abuse, as well as their obligations under PREA. Additionally, Christians can advocate for independent oversight bodies to monitor compliance with these regulations and hold institutions accountable for addressing incidents of abuse.

Offering spiritual support and advocacy: Churches and faith-based organizations can offer spiritual support to vulnerable inmates, providing them with a sense of community and protection. These organizations can also advocate for policies and procedures that protect vulnerable inmates from sexual victimization.

Promoting a culture of abuse-reporting and victim-supporting: Christians can encourage prisons to create environments in which inmates feel safe reporting incidents of sexual abuse. This can be achieved by implementing confidential reporting mechanisms, ensuring that complaints are taken seriously, and providing appropriate support services for victims. Additionally, churches and faith-based organizations can offer spiritual and emotional support to survivors of sexual abuse, helping them find healing and forgiveness through Jesus.

Addressing staff-perpetrated abuse: We can advocate for thorough background checks on prospective employees, ongoing training on professional boundaries and ethics, and clear procedures for reporting and investigating allegations of staff misconduct. By pushing for a zero-tolerance policy for those found guilty, we can demonstrate our commitment to justice and the dignity of all individuals.

Fostering a culture of rehabilitation and restoration: By promoting a focus on rehabilitation and restoration within the prison system, the Church can help reduce violence, including sexual abuse. Emphasizing the importance of personal growth, and accountability, we can create safer environments that align with the teachings of Christ.

Christ’s love in the darkest places

The issue of sexual abuse in American prisons is a stark reminder of the fallen nature of our world and the need for Christ’s love to be present in even the darkest of places. As followers of Jesus, we are called to stand up against injustice and advocate for the marginalized and oppressed. As it is written in Proverbs 31:8-9, “Speak up for those who have no voice, for the justice of all who are dispossessed. Speak up, judge righteously, and defend the cause of the oppressed and needy.” By engaging in solutions grounded in our faith, we can work toward a more just and compassionate prison system that respects the human rights and dignity of all individuals, regardless of their past mistakes. 



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