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OP ED: Sexual assault in prison: vulnerable women prisoners have few protections and face reprisal for reporting attacks

Halifax Examiner by Martha Paynter 24 May 2019

On May 22, three women incarcerated at the Nova Institution for Women federal prison filed civil suits against the Attorney General of Canada, alleging they were each sexually assaulted by correctional officer Brian Wilson over the course of the past five years.

The allegations included in the lawsuits are harrowing: when the first of the plaintiffs made a complaint about Wilson, she was berated by another Corrections employee assigned to “interview her.” The plaintiff was sent to a psychiatric institution in Saskatoon where she was heavily medicated for four years, and, as a condition of transfer back to Nova Scotia to be nearer to family, she was forced to apologize to Wilson. Wilson did not face any discipline at the time, and, in fact, has recently retired. The most recent accusations against Wilson are for sexual assaults in the summer and December of 2018.

None of the allegations have been tested in court.

It’s difficult to know where to begin to unpack all that is terrifying and frustrating about this case. The persistent myth that women make false rape accusations undoubtedly contributed to mishandling and dismissal of the women’s serious complaints. We know from Robyn Doolittle’s stellar investigative reporting that police in Canada dismiss one in five reported sexual assaults as “unfounded.” Stereotypes and misogyny drive the medicalization and silencing of women’s legitimate anger at systemic mistreatment. There is evidence women prisoners experience disproportionate punishment for insubordinate and uncooperative behaviour. And so it is not surprising that these women’s complaints were ignored.

But these women are among a population we know to have experienced astonishing levels of trauma. Upwards of 80% of incarcerated women have childhood histories of sexual and physical abuse. PTSD wreaks havoc on their lives and challenges even the most resourceful among them at coping. Most women prisoners develop substance use dependency and mental illness. This is a population in profound need of comprehensive health support and protection from retraumatization.

And yet, last year, Correctional Service Canada investigated 17 allegations of sexual assault of prisoners within the federal prison system. This likely underrepresents the number of assaults that prisoners experience by a wide margin. Only a tiny fraction of sexual assaults is reported in the public sphere, and within the prison system there are additional disincentives to reporting.

Consider, for example, an internal survey of employees at Edmonton’s maximum security federal prison. The survey, obtained by the Edmonton Journal, found that 17 employees reported they had been sexually assaulted by a co-worker and only a minority had reported the incidents. The victims of these sexual assaults were workers, not the far more vulnerable prisoners. What would a comprehensive examination of sexual assault in the prison system — including of prisoners — reveal?

The very nature of imprisonment threatens reproductive justice. In the context of rising anti-choice rhetoric and legislation in the United States, we’ve been talking a lot about reproductive justice lately. But reproductive justice is not just the right to abortion and to not be forced to experience pregnancy and birth. It is fundamentally about bodily autonomy. Incarceration threatens the human right to govern one’s own self, one’s body, its movements, and physical and sexual contact.

Incarcerated women are separated from their support systems, with limited access to expensive phone calls and no access to the internet. They are subject to use of force, strip searching, restraints, and solitary confinement. Despite the well-established evidence of histories of gendered violence, they are under the supervision and control of correctional officers and wardens who are often men. They experience dehumanization, institutionalization, and are overlooked by our society.

Women inside who experience physical violence or sexual exploitation have little recourse. It is very hard to call the cops from inside a prison. And it is especially hard if you have had to experience arrest, police lock up, and interrogation. The physical barriers to reporting sexual assault are one thing; lack of trust and fear of being disbelieved or reprisal are quite another.

At the same time as this sexual assault case against the federal government, seven people have a suit against the Province of Nova Scotia alleging 21 years of sexual abuse while they were imprisoned as teenagers at the Waterville Youth Facility. And last month, a worker was charged with sexual assault of a youth at the Wood Street “secure treatment” facility, a quasi-correctional centre operated by Nova Scotia Community Services.

In the wake of these lawsuits, there will likely be calls for sensitivity training and improved internal policies on sexual harassment and reporting processes. But changes in training and internal policies will never be enough to change the fundamental and extraordinary vulnerability of women, transgender individuals, and youth who are locked away.

Incarceration is invisibility and disconnection from the public. The #MeToo era has broken the silence on sexual assault: there were more police-reported incidents of sexual assault in Canada in 2017 than for any prior year for which data are available. Avalon Sexual Assault Crisis Centre cannot even accept new clients, so high is the demand for their services now that we are beginning to talk openly about sexual assault. What about people in prisons: what are they able to say? Who is asking for their truth and who is listening to their voices?

If the mandate of Public Safety Canada is indeed public safety, we must acknowledge people experiencing incarceration are members of the public who deserve safety from violence and exploitation. We must recognize the potential for harm the prison system creates, and proactively seek alternatives to incarceration to protect marginalized individuals from further trauma.

Martha Paynter is a Registered Nurse, a Trudeau Scholar and Doctoral Candidate at Dalhousie University. She is the Founder and Chair of Women’s Wellness Within.