Working with incarcerated survivors is a unique opportunity to support an underserved population. While different from serving survivors in the community, the advocate’s core role is the same, the main difference is setting. The same training and techniques are effective when working with incarcerated individuals, but the environment, the time necessary to build trust and rapport, and the process of safety planning may be different. Advocates should leverage the skills they already have and learn about the environment of incarcerated survivors to best serve them. Survivors are the experts on their lives, experiences, and environments, advocates work to reduce the burden on survivors as they begin to heal and access justice, regardless of setting.
Advocates who have never worked in incarceration facilities sometimes doubt they have the expertise or ability to support people who have been abused in confinement because of the unfamiliar environment and system. Remember, your role is the same – to operate from a survivor centered perspective, to provide emotional support, to maintain privacy and confidentiality – you already have skillset, advocates now just have the added challenge of balancing your role with security requirements and confidentiality.
Just like that of advocacy in a community setting, a coordinated survivor-centered, trauma informed approach reduces the impacts of sexual violence for both advocates and survivors. Understanding the dynamics of sexual abuse in detention and learning how to work with survivors who are incarcerated will help advocates better respond to sexual assault in a correctional setting. For more training on PREA and working with incarcerated victims, MCASA encourages advocates to visit Just Detention International, the National PREA Resource Center, and MCASA’s online training library. Additionally, MCASA provides training by request for advocates working with incarcerated populations.
The Maryland Department of Corrections and Public Safety allows rape crisis center staff to support incarcerated survivors regardless of MOU status. The Correctional Facility Locator and the Inmate Locator should be used to better support survivors and understand the facility they are housed within. Additionally, each facility has various levels of security, rules and procedures around entering the facility, and staff availability, advocates should understand institutional policies and procedures before visiting or serving a survivor. It is important to know that incarceration facilities are not a monolith, each facility has its own set of norms, culture, policies and procedures, and leadership; advocates should strive to learn about each individual facility they serve, as survivors support services and environment can vary greatly. As such, advocates should research and seek connections with each individual facility.
Before initially serving a survivor, advocates need to connect with corrections facility staff. Typically, the PREA Compliance Manager, the social workers and case managers, or counseling department, at an institution arranges logistics. Remember that a survivor must request a sexual assault advocate, while an advocate can schedule time to meet with correctional staff and tour the facility, an incarcerated survivor must intitate the visit, not an advocate.
The PREA compliance manager typically coordinates visiting logistics, especially for sexual assault forensic exams, they accompany the survivor throughout the institution’s internal response to the assault and then notify the community-based sexual assault program that a victim is being brought to the hospital for an examination. Following any initial interaction with a survivor, the PREA Compliance Manager will arrange subsequent visits between an advocate and a survivor.
Make sure that you understand facility entry requirements, particularly around identification requirements, clothing and apparel dress codes, and other necessary forms of documentation. Anything you bring to the institution should be cleared with the PREA Compliance Manager prior to your visit, be prepared for your belongings to be searched. For specific facility details and requirements, advocates should use the Department of Corrections and Public Safety’s Correctional Facility Locator to learn about requirements and how to best access the facility. Better understanding the environment a survivor lives in will help you better serve their needs and provide support.
While not required for advocates to offer services to survivors, MOUs provide an important connection between rape crisis centers and facilities, specifically around service provision, response protocols, and sustaining a unified effort and relationship.The purpose of an MOU is to ensure a sustainted effort between the facility and community service provider involved in providing survivors with confidential emotional support, crisis intervention, information, and referrals related to sexual violence as required. If you would like support around the MOU process, ongoing training and technical assistance, please contact [email protected].
Incarcerated sexual assault survivors can experience the same traumatic effects as other sexual assault victims (sleep disturbances, anxiety, depression, self-blame, physical soreness and injury, etc.). The differences result from the environment in which they live. While survivors who experience sexual violence and are housed in correctional facilities may live and experience a different environment, the advocacy skills and trauma informed care principles should still be used to support them. Incarcerated survivors are the experts on their lives, their experience, and the environment they live in, advocates should continue to use the same trauma informed approaches.
Just like the community settings, advocates can expect to accompany survivors to a sexual assault foresnic exam, provide ongoing support through any investigatory process, and provide emotions support, advocacy, and follow up via phone, in-person, and mail. Just as you would in the community, be able to inform the survivor and staff of who you are and your role, ensure the survivor has consented to your presence, and make sure that you know the protocol for forensic exams.
Within the prison environment, it is difﬁcult to protect a survivor's privacy. Lack of privacy can impact the survivor’s ability to heal in the prison environment. There are few places for a victim to process the events, and be alone with shared living and working space. Lack of privacy may also impact a survivor’s ability to access your services and other confidential resources. Safety planning around privacy and reaching community service providers is a vital step in increasing a survivor's ability to access support services, both inside and outside of a facility.
Separating the survivor from the offender may be difﬁcult. Although a sexual assault survivor should not be placed back in a cell with his/her/Their alleged perpetrator, if is virtually impossible for him/her/them to avoid the perpetrator entirely unless one of them is transferred to another institution. Advocates and community service providers should be prepared to safety plan with survivors, specifically around potential interactions with the perpetrator.
Incarcerated survivors are away from their friends and family and have little or no support system. This is one area where a sexual assault advocate can be particularly helpful. By providing the survivor someone to talk to about the assault. The advocate is giving him/her/them an opportunity for compassion and support.
Survivors may have concerns for their safety after a report of sexual assault. He/she/they may feel that there are no safe locations. If a survivor is in fear of their own safety, it is important to actively safety plan, review reporting options, and consider working with the survivor to alert incarceration staff.
A victim’s emotional reactions to the assault may be exacerbated by the prison environment. This is an area where the sexual assault advocate should collaborate with the prison staff (through your contact, the PREA Compliance Manager, counselors, etc.) to meet the survivor’s needs for mental health services to assist him/her/their in dealing with the assault. Additionally, advocates should explore available coping strategies with the survivor; these may include activities like meditation, journaling, breath work reading, exercise, prayer, etc. Be mindful of the available resources and coping strategies in incarceration facilities, these look different than those available in the community.