I received a few emails/tweets from readers asking for my thoughts about the conviction of two young men for raping a young woman (Jane Doe) in Steubenville, Ohio. Some wanted to know if I thought that “justice” was served. Others asked a variation of this question that came from a Twitter follower: “How do u respond to Steubenville case? How to remain survivor-centered but show that “rot in prison” is not an answer?” I had resolved not to write about the verdict and sentence but since I feel a responsibility to respond to the emails/tweets, I have decided to share my thoughts here today.
Those who don’t know the background about Jane Doe’s rape in Steubenville should read this excellent article. What she experienced is unacceptable, immoral and wrong. PERIOD. How she has continued to be treated in her community is unconscionable but unfortunately unsurprising. It points to how endemic rape culture is and also to the failure of a primarily criminal legal focused approach to eradicating sexual violence.
Currently, survivors of violence have one option for seeking public accountability for the harm that we experience: the courts. For a number of individual and systemic reasons, many survivors decide not to pursue this option. For example, rape can be hard to prove and as has been the case in Steubenville survivors are often blamed for our victimization. So those who do choose to pursue a legal avenue for accountability are often faced with a broken system that is usually unable to produce the outcomes that we seek. The truth is that the courts fail most survivors. This has led many advocates to suggest reforms that they say would make the courts more responsive to survivors’ needs. When reforms have been made however, they have mostly fallen short.
It’s no wonder then that news of a conviction in the Steubenville rape case was greeted with relief and in some cases optimism. This is perfectly understandable. Few rape cases ever even make it to trial. When they do, convictions are rare. Most people are very invested in the law and the legal system. They desperately want to believe that it can provide “justice.” This verdict feels like some vindication of that hope.
I am actually in favor of trials or community accountability circles when someone is raped. Questions about what happened, how it happened, who was harmed (including friends, family & other community members), and how we can repair the harm caused deserve to be aired in public (or private). This is a good thing. As a survivor of sexual assault, I want rape to be discussed publicly. I want the names of rapists to be known. I want rape to end.
I do not believe, however, in locking people up in prisons as punishment. There are many reasons for this and I will suggest four: 1. Prisons are not rehabilitative; 2. Prisons make people worse; 3. Prisons are not a deterrent to violence; 4. And most importantly for me as an anti-violence organizer, sentencing someone to prison likely condemns that individual to judicial rape.
Ian Welsh spoke to this in a post a few weeks ago:
In the US at the current time, going to jail, for many people, means being raped. Often repeatedly. So I, personally, am not willing to send anyone but the worst criminals to jail, because I do not believe in judicial rape. The punishment does not fit the crime.
I would actually go further than Welsh and suggest that we have to abolish prisons all together but let’s leave that discussion for another day. I understand that some think that it is fine if the two convicted young men are raped in prison. After all, they are rapists and to some it would be “just” for them to get a taste of their own medicine. But this would mistake punishment for justice. More importantly, this belief underscores the dissonance that accompanies many calls to eradicate rape culture. If rape culture is pervasive in our society, then by definition it also pervades our prisons. Knowing this, are those of us who are committed to ending rape culture also calling for its eradication in prisons? If not, why not?
Do we believe that these two young men are going to unlearn rape culture in prison? How about all of their friends who seem to believe that the young men were unjustly convicted? Who will intervene with them to help them unlearn rape culture? The vast majority of our resources have been diverted to criminal legal approaches while rape crisis centers are being defunded and don’t have the capacity to do any prevention work with young people. Some will say that it isn’t either/or; That we can focus on criminal legal remedies while also doing community-based intervention/prevention work to eradicate rape culture. Yet it’s been decades and we still haven’t found the proper balance. Our primary focus on a criminal legal approach has in fact seemed to crowd out other interventions. More importantly, it has let community members off the hook from taking responsibility to interrupt or intervene in preventing or calling out rape. The social problem becomes the criminal legal system’s responsibility to solve and not ours as community members.
I am a proponent of restorative and transformative justice because I believe that they offer the best prospects to eradicate violence. I believe that survivors of violence should be centered in all interventions. Let’s focus on listening to survivors and on really engaging their claims. I want spaces for authentic and survivor-directed healing. I believe that our communities often enable harm and that therefore they must be engaged in addressing these harms. I believe that prisons are constitutive of violence in and of themselves and therefore are not viable anti-violence tools. I believe that perpetrators of violent acts must understand the impact of the harms they cause. Let’s create a context within which we encourage perpetrators to assume actual responsibility for harm. Let’s provide them an opportunity to be transformed if they will accept it. Finally, perpetrators should be expected to actively participate in repairing the harm that they have caused to their victims and by extension to our communities.
This simply cannot happen within our current broken, corrupt, and oppressive criminal legal system. It is impossible. The money that we save from locking people up can be invested in prevention efforts, popular education and in meeting the material needs of survivors and all of our people. I feel certain that we will be more likely to eradicate all forms of violence with this approach as opposed to our current punitive, criminal legal focused one.
So what do we do in the meantime? There aren’t yet enough community-run restorative and transformative justice projects around the country. Those of us who advocate these approaches must immediately take on the responsibility to implement these models. Some of us are already doing this but many are not (for a number of reasons which include fear of the unknown). We need to get to work. Survivors of violence want viable options besides the courts. We shouldn’t have to choose between suffering in silence or being re-traumatized by the current criminal legal system. I’ve spent my entire adulthood working with and supporting survivors of violence. I am confident in saying that almost all label our current system to be an abject failure. We are often harmed by people we know and sometimes love. Most of us aren’t interested in revenge but are seeking accountability for harm done. There is a massive constituency for alternative approaches that might be more just and humane. If such alternatives were plentiful, even more of us would come forward to report violence and harm. Our society would be the better for it.
I’m sometimes hectored by folks when they learn that I am an abolitionist. They tell me that I am naive and that prisons are here to stay. I always answer this way: prisons are man-made creations, the prison as we know it today is a recent historical invention and it can be unmade. Our current U.S. criminal legal system is unsustainable; it is already collapsing under its own weight. Those of us who favor a different approach should keep experimenting and ignore the catcalls. What I most want as a survivor of violence is an eradication of violence in all of its forms. I’ll keep working towards that goal.
On Twitter, I read comments suggesting that the Steubenville young men’s sentences were “slaps on the wrist” because they were tried in juvenile court and sentenced to juvenile prisons. Some were also dismayed that their sentences were not longer. I’m willing to bet that the people offering these opinions have not spent any significant time inside a juvenile prison. Juvenile prisons are NOT country clubs. They are PRISONS and therefore AWFUL places to be. Unfortunately more and longer prison sentences won’t eradicate rape culture. The work to do that will happen neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block, family member by family member, and friend by friend. It’s not comforting because it means a long, hard slog but what other choice do we have but to do the work. None. So let’s continue (without a primary focus on the criminal legal system as the purveyor of justice).
Finally, it’s always important to articulate our positive vision for the world that we want to build. So in the world that I strive to build with others, our culture will support young women like Jane Doe who bravely come forward to report the harm that they have experienced. In my new world without prisons, community members have the capacity and see the necessity of actively participating in the healing process of survivors. In my new world without prisons, we acknowledge that we are all harmed by the violence done to another. In my new world without prisons, Jane Doe can confidently turn her face to the light because she would not be receiving censure and death threats. In my new world without prisons, our communities would hold the two young men who raped Jane Doe accountable without seeking to demonize and disappear them. In my new world without prisons, we are able to be compassionate to both survivors and perpetrators of harm (who have often experienced harms themselves). In my new world, we take a pledge to fight rape culture actively but without relying on the criminal legal system as our primary ally. In my new world without prisons, rape culture is history.