And you can send messages, too.
Editor’s note: The original version of this story was published in December 2016. In December 2017, we touched base with Just Detention International (JDI) Communications Director Jesse Lerner-Kinglake for an update.
In the wake of #MeToo, Lerner-Kinglake says, “For perhaps the first time ever, we’ve reached at a moment where sexual abuse is a national topic of conversation…But prisoners, because of their isolation, have been unable to participate in the discussion, and remain hidden. That’s why campaigns like Words of Hope are important. It allows people on the outside to remind folks who are behind bars that they matter and they are not forgotten — that their voices are being heard, even though they don’t have a Twitter account or can’t add the name of their perpetrator to a Google spreadsheet.”
This year, JDI is sending messages to about 600 incarcerated survivors of sexual abuse — people like Danny, a survivor of rape in a California jail, who said in a letter to JDI, “So often, society treats those of us who are incarcerated as less than human. The messages I received made me feel that others actually care about me, and that I am still a part of society. They helped me feel connected to my community, and that my life still matters.”
Among those who wrote letters this year is Troy Isaac, a member of JDI’s Survivor Council, who for a period of time wrote his own letter for each one penned by someone else. Isaac is one of many message-writers who is himself a survivor of sexual abuse in prison.
I n a study conducted by the Bureau of Justice, 4% of state and federal prison inmates and 3.2% of jail inmates reported experiencing sexual victimization by another inmate or facility staff. And yet, despite these chilling figures (and keep in mind, this just accounts for those who reported abuse), rape in prisons is often treated as a punchline in American culture, with “jokes” about assault behind bars common on stand-up-comedy stages, in movies and TV shows, and across the social media universe.
Those reeling from the trauma of assault are not only often deprived of support, but forced to suffer the indignity of mockery — as if their status as a prisoner makes them underserving of the basic human right to not suffer abuse.
To provide the crucial support these prisoners so often lack, Just Detention International (JDI) — a nonprofit founded on the principle that “rape is not part of the penalty” — launched the program “Words of Hope” in 2010 with a deceptively simple mission: ask people to send messages of encouragement and hope to incarcerated survivors around the holidays. Some messages are handwritten ahead of time; others are submitted online and transcribed onto cards by JDI staff and volunteers. The notes provide essential comfort during dark times, while challenging damning stigmas surrounding rape in prison.
A small sampling of messages reveals the power of words to inspire and bolster, even when simple and sparse:
“You are brave. You are loved. You are not forgotten. No matter what happens, please remember those three things. The world needs you.”
“Healing isn’t easy but it is possible. There is light on the other side. Remember how strong you are, you are a SURVIVOR! Happy Holidays”
“From 1 survivor to another: You’re not forgotten. You’re not alone. We share the same fight. Peace to you and may justice prevail in 2017!”
“I am so proud of you for speaking up and working to move forward each day. Know that we are thinking of you and wishing you all the best.”
“Today I’m sending you a message of hope and healing for the holidays. We will probably never meet but you’re in my heart! Happy Holidays!”
In the years since it launched, the “Words of Hope” program has grown significantly in scale and scope. In 2016, JDI received 13,000 messages from a wide array of people, including rape crisis counselors, high school students, police officers, and, not surprisingly, former prisoners. JDI Communications Director Jesse Lerner-Kinglake says the diversity of those who contribute is powerful — “When you get holiday cards from a group of people that includes cops and other survivors, each one offering a bit of kindness, it’s inspiring.”
More than providing support, the initiative helps bolster JDI’s mission to shed light on a crisis that our culture often fails to treat with the appropriate care. When asked about the biggest misconceptions surrounding sexual violence in prison, Lerner-Kinglake answers, “There are so many!”
“People think that the majority of sexual assaults in prison are committed by prisoners, that this violence deters crime, that it is inevitable, that inmates deserve whatever happens to them, and that what goes on behind bars doesn’t matter to people on the outside.
Not one of those beliefs is true. And they are harmful. Most prisoners return to their communities — they are our neighbors, family members, and loved ones. But it’s toxic and misguided on its face to think that a prisoner, just because of their custody status, doesn’t have the same right to be safe as people in the community. Even if a person has a life sentence, they deserve to have dignity and be free of sexual abuse. Rape is not part of a person’s sentence.”
To that end, JDI is committed throughout the year to fighting for laws and policies to end prisoner rape, while making sure survivors get the help they need. Lerner-Kinglake says the organization receives 2,000 letters each year from survivors in prisons and jails across the U.S., and “we respond to each one, providing information about sexual abuse in detention, the healing process, survivors’ rights, and referrals to local organizations that can give counseling.”
It is important to remember this — that the fight for the rights of incarcerated survivors is crucial 365 days a year. At the same time, it makes sense that the mission of JDI is amplified during the holidays, when those behind bars may feel particularly alone, and a simple message can go a long way.
Here’s what some prisoners have said about the impact of the campaign on their lives.
Pedro, incarcerated survivor in Wisconsin
“At around 2:45, everyone gets kind of quiet and waits for the officer to pass out mail. What happened next is a testament to the amazing holiday messages sent by JDI’s supporters.
This envelope slides under the door. I started opening the JDI greeting cards and, after about the third one, my eyes started to water. It was as if all of you were here with me in this cell giving me hugs and saying the words I was reading.”
Sarah, incarcerated survivor of staff sexual abuse
“Thanks to all of your volunteers who wrote out messages from supporters. If you send out 10,000 cards, that is an unimaginable amount of love and care for us. This was my fifth consecutive Christmas in solitary confinement, and with the help of people who care, I was able to feel at ease. I made a little tree out of a high-end fashion magazine and set up my cards around it to remind me that I am not forgotten.”
Maribel, survivor of staff sexual abuse
“The cards helped me to see myself and who I really am, and all the negative thoughts went away. I look at them whenever I’m feeling down.”
*Maribel is now released from prison, and herself writes cards of support.
Angela, transgender woman incarcerated in Colorado
“Sometimes I just feel like giving up because I feel utterly alone. But then I’m reminded by JDI supporters that I’m not alone and that I am loved. It makes a MIGHTY difference.”
Nathan, survivor of staff sexual abuse
“I felt like I didn’t have any support in prison. But the kindness from JDI’s supporters who shared their love showed me that I had friends who I had never known before. It helped me deal with the pain. The cards are something that I will never forget.”
*Nathan is now out of prison, and has himself written dozens of messages to incarcerated survivors.