On Friday, the Marshall Project posted two prison orientation videos – one for incoming female inmates, one for incoming male inmates – which feature veteran inmates advising newcomers on how to avoid being raped. The videos are to be shown to new inmates in all prisons in the state of New York.
The videos, currently available1 on The Marshall Project’s website, are startling. The tone is that of a welcome video, offering matter-of-fact, practical tips, while the subject is sexual violence.
But much of the reaction to the videos has focused on how unusual it is for New York to take this step – to openly acknowledge that sexual violence in prisons is an ongoing reality despite years of professed “zero tolerance” by the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS).
The videos also take an extraordinary approach to the material, by involving actual inmates in every step of the process. A former prisoner, T.J. Parsell, is the director. Current inmates workshopped all of the content before filming. These inmates are referred to as “the experts,” and interviews with them take up most of the running time.
Where there is criticism, it has focused not on what is in the videos, but on what is missing. Some prisoner advocates have pointed out that the videos disregard sensitive topics that could reflect badly on DOCCS. While the women’s version acknowledges that guards can be predators, for example, the men’s version makes no mention of staff-on-inmate sexual violence, even though male inmates are more likely2 to be sexually molested by staff than by fellow inmates. And both the male and female versions, said Brenda Smith, a former PREA commissioner and an expert on prison rape, should have explicitly emphasized that there is no such thing as consensual sex between inmates and staff; that female staff can be as sexually abusive as male staff; and that sex between inmates can start out as consensual but turn into something more coercive.
The videos, these critics say, are an attempt to change the culture of the inmates, by helping them identify predators and by attempting to convince them that reporting sexual assault “is not snitching.” But such an approach may not make a dent in prison rape unless it is coupled with a more concrete effort, on the part of DOCCS, to hold itself accountable – by installing more cameras in facilities and by consistently punishing staff who take advantage of inmates.
Below, a further selection of the responses, both laudatory and skeptical, to these unusual videos.
Lara Stemple, Director, Health & Human Rights Law Project, UCLA School of Law. (Stemple is the former executive director of Stop Prisoner Rape.)
The interviews with the inmates themselves, as opposed to a more artificial approach or one that simply recites policy, is a brilliant strategy. Hearing from “one of our own” makes it more likely inmates will take heed. Secondly, the work that the videos do to dismantle the so-called “code of silence” is vital. Reluctance to report has long been a major obstacle, and inmates urging others to speak out is powerfully important.
I'll just note that I was concerned to hear one of the women inmates say, “It's rare you see healthy relationships” inside. I'm concerned about homophobia and overzealousness that might unnecessarily patrol consensual relationships, which do take place in prisons. We have to be careful not to police all intimate relationships among inmates.
Finally, the Bureau of Justice Statistics data has consistently shown that male inmates are more likely to be sexually victimized by staff than by other inmates. Because the data is quite robust and runs counter to assumptions, this phenomenon needs to be brought forward and addressed. I'd like to see an additional video about this form of abuse.
Dori Lewis and Veronica Vela, attorneys with the Prisoners' Rights Project of the Legal Aid Society.
While we appreciate DOCCS’s effort, the [women’s] video does not make much of an effort to convince women that DOCCS understands what women are up against when they've been abused by staff: The power differential, the fear of retaliation and the reality that women prisoners are not believed when they actually do report staff abuse.
The video tells women to refuse an officer's advances, with vague assurances that DOCCS will protect them from retaliation. But the video ignores prison reality: A prisoner is not allowed to disobey an officer's order. A promise of protection from retaliation is virtually meaningless: If she reports misconduct she will have to live with the day-to-day fear that he, or his friends and colleagues, will make her life a living hell, including being the target of false disciplinary charges. The video acknowledges that some relationships between staff and women prisoners are obvious and glaring to anyone who pays attention, but ignores the Department's responsibility to pay attention to what its staff is doing, and to supervise them to prevent such abuse from taking place. The video claims that complaints of staff sexual abuse will be taken seriously, but that claim is undermined by how DOCCS actually responds to these allegations: In reality, New York State substantiates only about 2 percent of the complaints of staff sexual abuse that they receive.
So long as DOCCS fails adequately to investigate and discipline staff, all the videos in the world won't convince women in custody that there is any reason to report: They know they won't be believed and that no action will be taken.
A.T. Wall, Director, Rhode Island Department of Corrections. (In the past, Rhode Island and Michigan have also shown inmates an orientation video about prison rape, but that video featured dramatizations rather than first-person advice from actual inmates.)
Relying on inmate peers to provide this advice – it provides a level of authenticity that we in the corrections business simply can’t convey. I’m also pleased that there is mention of sexual violence on the part of staff against inmates. I believe we as a profession have evolved tremendously, to the point where it’s now acceptable to educate inmates about their rights.
Jennifer Coombs, a former inmate at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women. (While in prison, she and a male corrections officer had a sexual relationship; he ultimately pleaded guilty to statutory rape.)
I was a little surprised that some of the inmates would even talk about this. [When I was an incoming inmate,] we didn't talk about it at all. So when guards started flirting with me, I thought, Oh my gosh, this really happens When I went there, I didn't think any of that stuff would have happened to me. I think the video is a good idea because it prepares people about some of the behaviors that can happen. I think it would have prepared me better for what to expect.
I like the part about who you can contact if something happens to you, because it's so scary and a lot of girls won't say anything because the guards have all the control in there. If you say something to the wrong person, you put your safety in jeopardy.
Michael Powers, President, New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association, Inc.
It's unfortunate that the video documentary, that obviously is intended as an educational piece for incoming female inmates, chooses to single out staff in conversations related to sexual assaults. The overwhelmingly majority of [correctional officers] perform their duties with professionalism and integrity while providing an environment that is conducive to the inmate's rehabilitation. This is being accomplished as prison violence and the number of assaults on staff continue to rise to record levels.
Cindy Struckman-Johnson, former commissioner, National Prison Rape Elimination Commission.
I liked the close-ups of the speakers’ faces – you feel as if you are in the room with them. They had just the right tone – frank and realistic in their advice to stay safe yet respectful of the listener.
Samuel Hamilton, a former inmate at Fishkill Correctional Facility, who participated in the filming of the videos.
My first word after watching the final product: Powerful.
I was in prison for over 30 years, and very, very rarely did DOCCS ask us – the inmates – for help with solving a problem. Instead, they always asked somebody with a degree in criminology to design programs for us.
That's what was so unusual about this whole experience. They sat us in a circle, then asked us to have what they called a "dialogue" about what new inmates should know about sexual assault – and they allowed us to actually have that dialogue... It really was us that came up with the content of this thing. And why not ask the people with hundreds of years of combined experience to come up with the solutions?
Because this was made by actual inmates, the new inmates are going to listen, I have no doubt of it. You know, even the loud, tough guys, the ones who might say this video is a joke, are coming in with fear. And whether they think they're paying attention or not, the information in this video will be stored away in their brains, until one day they will need it, and it will be there. They'll remember.
As for the part about snitching, changing the culture is not going to happen from just one video... That being said, what I see this video trying to do is separate between different TYPES of snitching. Inmates' brains have many different sections, like anyone else's. And we can put snitching-about-rape in a separate section from other types of snitching... The main point is that we can't be rehabilitated if we don't feel safe. Feeling fear makes your brain too hard for learning. And after watching this video, I’m certain it can help individuals feel less fear.