Trigger warning: this article discusses rape experiences and sexual violence
It’s been almost five years since I was raped by one of my closest friends. It took me months to acknowledge what happened to me, and over a year to tell my mom. When I finally did, she asked, “Why didn’t you tell me sooner? We could’ve gone to the police.” Part of the reason I didn’t was because I didn’t think anyone would believe me. I previously had negative experiences telling close friends and family (like someone telling me they thought God hated me for “what I did”), and I couldn’t imagine the response from people who barely knew me. I’m still working through my trauma nearly five years later, but with a different framework. Within the last year, prison abolition has made its way into mainstream conversation. In short, prison abolition calls for the elimination of policing and imprisonment to create long-term alternatives through transformative justice — a method used to prevent and address harm and violence without causing more of it. A common question asked is “what about the rapists and murderers?” As a rape survivor and abolitionist, this was a question I had to answer for myself.
First, we must understand what happens to rapists now. The current legal and prison system claims to provide justice for victims of crimes. However, these systems deliver inconsistent outcomes. Some rapists face decades in jail, some receive community service, and some receive no repercussions whatsoever. These inconsistencies eternalize rape culture in society by allowing perpetrators to evade accountability. They fail to address sexual violence as an insitution, instead focusing on individuals.
Additionally, acts of sexual violence also occur within the prison systems. Prisons are notorious for the sexual and emotional trauma they create. Placing people in these environments is not only immoral and inhumane, but it’s counterintuitive. Prisons center punishment over rehabilitation. Trends show that increased arrests and convictions have done little to lower incidents of sexual violence or protect survivors. This proves that relying on arrests and convictions is purely reactionary. The system does not provide preventative measures to put an end to sexual violence, nor does it provide opportunities for people to learn from their mistakes.
The process of reporting and taking someone to trial can also cause survivors additional trauma. They are asked to put themselves in emotionally vulnerable positions with little promise of follow-through or a guaranteed outcome from officers and prosecutors. This uncertainty is what often prevents survivors from reporting. Regardless of if someone reports or not, the trauma of sexual violence is pervasive. Women who’ve experienced sexual violence are at a higher risk for being incarcerated during their lifetime.
At its core, prison abolition is meant to center those who have experienced harm so that the response to incidents doesn’t neglect their feelings or disregard the impact. It is understandable why many survivors turn to the legal system for answers; they are often made to feel as if they have no other alternatives. Violent systems provoke violent responses from those they harm. Rape culture is violent. Patriarchy is violent. For a survivor, it is natural to want to respond in a way that makes them feel heard and invokes the most harm.
The most important thing is to ask survivors what they want. Allow survivors to guide the process of what justice means to them. For me, my idea of justice has more to do with my healing. I used to wonder how different my life would be if my rapist took accountability and apologized for his actions. It took me almost four years to understand how pervasive his actions were in my life. It wasn’t just how it changed the way I interacted with men, hoping that they’d want me if I gave into what they wanted. It wasn’t just panic attacks from seeing him in public, or having person after person doubt my experience because “he wouldn’t do that.” It wasn’t just having to sleep in the same room for the rest of high school and college breaks where he raped me. The experience robbed me of emotional clarity. I now lack the ability to find companionship in my life. I was so paranoid about what could be that I spent years pushing people away and projecting onto them. Beyond romantic relationships, I have a hard time making new friends because I’m afraid of what they might do or that they won’t understand what I’m going through. For a long time, I didn’t even know it because I compartmentalized my life and blocked everything out so I wouldn’t feel the pain.
The hardest part about all of this is accepting that none of the impact I feel changes whether he’s incarcerated or not. It wouldn’t change how people responded to me, or the emotional damage I’ve been left with. All I wanted was for someone to believe me the first time I told them, without hesitation. I wanted someone to see that I was in distress and help me find resources for healing. “Justice” would be nice. However, it’s better to have true justice centered around relieving my emotional burden and not trying to retraumatize me.
Our current systems do not hear survivors. They do not center their needs in decisions. They choose to punish rather than to heal. So to answer the question of “how do we change the prisons and the legal system?”, the answer is we don’t: we replace them with transformative justice. Ultimately, we cannot ask a system to solve an issue that it perpetuates. Transformative justice shows that healing and accountability can and must take place simultaneously; it’s not a tradeoff. I have listed some resources that you can explore to learn more about how prison abolition is the solution to sexual violence.
An Accountability Process Primer from the F12 Network
Statement on Gender Violence and the Prison Industrial Complex (2001) from INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence and Critical Resistance
“New Responses to Crimes with Victims” from Instead of Prisons by Fay Honey Knopp
Abolish the Box: Moving Beyond Criminality in Addressing Sexual Violence by crunktastic from the Crunk Feminist Collective
Aching for Abolition by Camonghne Felix
Thinking Through Incarceration and Sexual Violence by Amy Clark
By Aminah Jenkins, Staff Writer