Curbing Sexual Assault In Women's Prisons Via A Dress Code

Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.

By Maurice Chammah

Her path from Honduras to America was both tragic and typical. At 19, she fled north with her 3-year-old son after she was allegedly beaten and raped by the boy’s father. When agents picked her up along the border last May, she was taken to the Berks County Residential Center in rural Pennsylvania. Berks is considered one of the most progressive places in the country for detaining immigrant families, especially compared to facilities in south Texas, where hunger strikes are making the news and reports have begun to surface of children separated from their mothers. One impressed U.N. representative described in 2011 how women at Berks “gather in the halls chatting and knitting while their children attend school.”

She had no reason to know this was far beyond his abilities.

While waiting for her immigration case to be resolved, the Honduran woman met a middle-aged male officer. He bought her snacks and let her use his cell phone. He promised help with her case. She had no reason to know this was far beyond his abilities.

When the two were caught in a sexual situation, in August 2014, the officer claimed it was consensual. The woman, whose name has been withheld, later told attorneys she “did not feel comfortable saying no,” according to Carl Takei of the American Civil Liberties Union. Takei adds that the officer's “apparent goal was to have sex with her in every room in the facility.” The guard was put on leave and then arrested in January 2015 and charged with “institutional sexual assault” by county prosecutors. His attorney has told multiple reporters that he should receive a presumption of innocence. Nevertheless, he was put on leave when the allegations arose in August 2014 and has since been fired.

Related: Peeping Toms: Do Prison Inmates Have The Right To Privacy?

In prison, conflicting statements about sexual consent are common, which is partially why the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act (known among corrections professionals as PREA) has defined any sexual contact between a prisoner and staff to be abuse. “Any situation when one person holds complete authority over another, especially in prison, where inmates have no redress for any problems that happen, the staff person can completely control their lives,” psychology professor Cindy Struckman-Johnson, PhD told NPR in 2006, while serving on a national committee to develop standards for implementation of the prison rape law. “What may start out as a romance or a sexual attraction, even a friendship, can quickly turn into a master-slave relationship.”

The Dept. of Homeland Security has issued its own version of the PREA standards, but reports of sexual abuse still arise at immigration detention facilities.

Two months after the alleged incident with the Honduran woman, officials at Berks County Residential Center issued a dress code. A single sheet of paper, obtained recently by immigration attorneys and the ACLU, shows that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials released clothing guidelines for the detained women — who, unlike their counterparts at other facilities, had been allowed to wear their own clothes.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesperson Sarah Maxwell says the dress code was “not a result of the investigation” into the Honduran woman’s allegations, and came instead as part of a regular update of policy in early November.

The ACLU believes the dress code puts the burden on the women, rather than the guards, to prevent sexual assault by ensuring their outfits are not too provocative. “Many of the women detained at Berks survived domestic violence or sexual assault in their home countries,” says Takei. “By telling these women to watch how they dress, Berks administrators sent a chillingly familiar message about who gets blamed when men commit crimes...and likely deterred [the women] from reporting sexual abuse in the future.”

Related: The New Mothers Of Bedford Hills

Among the guidelines in the Resident Dress Code:

· Residents must use shirts that cover the shoulders, chest, stomach, and lower back.
Tops with cleavage are not allowed.

· Very thin, revealing clothes are not allowed.

· All types of underwear are always allowed as long as they are not visible in any areas at any time.

· Tight clothes are not allowed (shirts, pants, and shorts).

· Shorts should never be shorter than half-thigh.

· Skirts and dresses are not allowed unless approved for religious reasons.
Teresa Archambeault, the wife of the Honduran woman’s lawyer, is a paralegal and a Peruvian immigrant. She said women at the facility have complained that the dress code offers an opportunity for petty tyranny among guards. This past New Year’s Eve, Achambeault said, one woman at Berks wanted to wear jeans and a “nice black tunic” to celebrate the holiday. “Basically, the guards told her, ‘Change that, now.’” Archambeault was incredulous because “she was a very serious evangelical girl who is very, very conservative."

The woman said she felt insulted when the guard came and embarrassed her like this. She reportedly told Archambeault, “I didn’t feel like it was inappropriate at all. It was a nice tunic that I wanted to wear. It’s depressing enough to be inside here.”

In 2012, less than a week before President Obama announced that PREA would apply to any federal facility that detained people in the U.S., Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued a policy directive demanding that facilities improve training, protect victims against retaliation for reporting, investigate fully and otherwise create an environment with “zero tolerance” for sexual assault.” Amy Fettig, an ACLU staff attorney, described these policies as “pretty darn good.”

The guards cannot actually affect an immigration status, but the women rarely know this.

But, the problem, according to multiple attorneys who have represented female immigrants, is that these women are “so afraid they’re going to be deported. They’re told, ‘If you don’t do X, Y, and Z, I’ll fuck with your papers,'” Fettig says. The guards cannot actually affect an immigration status, but the women rarely know this.

Such a dynamic dates back to 1990, when a series of scandals over sexual abuse arose at facilities like the Krome Avenue Detention Center in Miami (“Anybody who had a uniform had free access to the women”) and later at the San Pedro Service Processing Center in Los Angeles (“I felt a constant pressure to retract my complaint against the officer”).

The number of detained immigrants began to grow in the wake of the Dept. of Homeland Security’s 2005 decision to imprison immigrants who had been caught without documents rather than allow them to live freely inside the country. Last year, in response to waves of children coming over the border from Central America, similar facilities opened in Artesia, NM, and in Karnes City, TX.

The women apparently denied that any sexual acts had taken place...

Within months of the opening of the Karnes County Residential Center, attorneys and activists had sent a letter to the Dept. of Homeland Security, describing how guards (who were hired by a private contractor, The GEO Group, Inc.) called some of the detained women their “girlfriends” and requested "sexual exchange for money, promises of assistance with their pending immigration cases, and shelter when and if the women are released." The Dept. of Homeland Security responded by interviewing more than 30 female detainees. The women apparently denied that any sexual acts had taken place, and DHS announced they were “unable to identify a victim or suspect.”

Immigration attorneys were skeptical that the women felt they could report sexual assault without fear of reprisal (this is also a reason why so few direct accounts of sexual assault by detained immigrants have made their way into the media). “There was really no transparency about the investigation whatsoever,” says Ranjana Natarajan, who directs the Civil Rights Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law. “What was the basis for concluding that the allegations were not true? What was the standard used? We really have no idea.”

At the end of 2014, immigration officials opened a new detention center — the country's largest yet, with a capacity of 2,400 — for immigrant families in Dilley, Texas. At Karnes and Dilley, officers hand out clothes to the women, so there is no need for a dress code. Audits of these facilities for compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act are scheduled to begin in July 2015. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which is a division of the Dept. of Homeland Security, has said all the facilities under their control are fully compliant with PREA. At Berks, “residents are given sexual assault and abuse awareness briefings when they first arrive at the center,” says Maxwell, the ICE spokesperson, “and PREA posters are throughout the center.”

More from Politics