African American in Prison

On Prosecutors Who Jail Rape Survivors

Rebecca McCray has a horrifying piece in Slate this week about sexual and domestic violence survivors who are thrown into jail – by the very prosecutors they turn to for help.

The piece describes a Honolulu domestic violence center operated by the prosecutor’s office. Rather than focusing on getting survivors and their kids to safety, the shelter seizes survivors’ cellphones and laptops, refuses to admit their kids, and will turn away anyone who won’t promise to testify against their abusers. Disturbingly, the city is prioritizing its conviction rate before its moral obligation to ensure survivors have a safe, welcoming place to go when they flee violence.

Gender-based violence is notoriously underreported; services must be available to the vast majority of survivors who just aren’t willing to testify against perpetrators. A model like the Honolulu shelter would literally leave them out in the cold, potentially forcing them to choose between being homeless and returning to an abusive partner. And I worry that if a survivor seeking help goes to a “shelter” that treats them not like a human being who needs help, but as a tool in a prosecutor’s strategy, they may be less likely to seek help in the future.

Even worse, some prosecutors are so hell-bent on securing convictions they are even willing to put survivors in jail to force them to testify against their abusers. McRary writes:

Last year in Oregon, a woman who alleged she’d been sexually assaulted by a corrections officer was jailed on a material witness warrant to ensure she’d cooperate with authorities; she was held even though she told the judge she intended to testify. In Houston, Texas, former Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson’s office jailed a rape victim for 28 days to force her to testify. “There were no apparent alternatives that would ensure both the victim’s safety and her appearance at trial,” said Anderson in a video statement defending the choice. In New Orleans, the practice of detaining domestic violence and sex crime victims to secure testimony is the status quo.….

In 2011, [Honolulu prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro] had a woman arrested at her graduation party to guarantee her testimony against an ex-boyfriend who’d allegedly abused her.

Throwing survivors in jail, robbing them of their autonomy in the wake of violence, is the ultimate form of revictimization.

The likely result of this is that fewer survivors come forward to report. For survivors who, in the wake of trauma, are grappling with how to seek safety and healing, the possibility that you’d be locked up because you’re not ready to take the stand is one hell of a deterrent to coming forward.

It’s a harsh illustration of the priorities that underlie the criminal system: prosecution is fundamentally about vindicating the interest of the state, even when that’s at odds with the needs, well-being, and dignity of survivors. And it’s another reminder of why survivors need civil solutions to gender-based violence.

You can read McCrary’s full piece here.

Image credit: University of Idaho Women’s Center

Sejal Singh is a columnist at Feministing, where she writes about educational equity, labor, and reproductive justice. Sejal is a Policy and Advocacy Coordinator for Know Your IX, a national campaign to end gender-based violence in schools, and a frequent speaker on LGBTQ rights and civil rights in education. She is a student at Harvard Law School.

Sejal Singh is a columnist at Feministing, writing about educational equity, labor, and reproductive justice.

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