Jan Lastocy only had a few months of hard time left on her sentence before she was home free. An inmate at Camp Branch women’s work camp in Coldwater, Michigan, Lastocy was serving an 18-month to 10-year prison sentence for attempted embezzlement. Prior to her sentencing, she had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She and her husband of 18 years were hoping her time in prison would give her the break she needed for her meds to kick in and pull her life back together.
“He thought I would be safer on the inside than I would be on the outside,” Lastocy tells Take Part. “He had no idea the kinds of things that happen in these facilities.”
Lastocy was terrified. Guards had the power to write up inmates arbitrarily. Piss off a guard, and it could cost an extra five years of hard time.
As part of her sentence, Lastocy worked in a warehouse at the nearby Lakeland Men’s Facility. At first, her experience there wasn’t much different than your typical job—other than the routine pat-downs. But after nearly a month at the facility, a new male guard showed up and immediately began making sexual advances at her.
Lastocy was terrified. Guards had the power to write up inmates arbitrarily. Piss off a guard, and it could cost an extra five years of hard time. Lastocy didn’t want to rock the boat—so she said nothing. “Our warden had made it clear that if it came down to the word of inmate versus a guard, she was always going to believe the guard,” Lastocy says. “I put down my head and counted down the days.”
Eventually, the guard was no longer satisfied with aggressive flirting. He demanded sex—or else. Lastocy had already witnessed this particular guard write a ticket that tacked a few months onto another inmate’s sentence—just for making a face he didn’t like. To see her family again, Lastocy felt she had to give in to his demands.
“Unless you’re in that situation, where someone has total control of you, you can’t understand how hopeless it is. You’re told what to do and when to do it at all times. I didn’t take a chance on not doing what I was told.”
The abuse went on for nearly six months before Lastocy was transferred to a halfway house.
The issue of sexual assault in American prison and jail systems is rarely talked about in any kind of solution-oriented way. It’s often treated as a hyperbolic joke. “We have this stereotypical notion of ‘Bubba’s going to be your best friend. Don’t drop the soap in the shower,’ ” Lastocy says.
But prison rape is no joke—and it happens all the time. A recent report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that nearly 1 in 10 inmates in America had been sexually assaulted in custody. That’s out of a prison population of 2.3 million. You do the math.
Last week, however, a major step was taken toward ending prison rape for good. After nearly nine years of waiting, the U.S. Department of Justice finally issued a series of steadfast guidelines for preventing sexual abuse in our correctional facilities. The guidelines mandate intensive screening of prison staff—who are believed to perpetrate half of the sexual assaults inside prison walls—the ability to report sexual assault to an outside agency, as well as ensure medical treatment and mental health counseling for victims.
“This is a sea change moment in the decades-long fight against sexual abuse in detention,” Chris Daley, deputy executive director of the prison advocacy group Just Detention International, tells TakePart. “For the first time, we now have uniform policies in place for inmate safety.”
The rules aren’t perfect. Though county jails are covered under the regulations, there’s no real enforcement mechanism to make sure they are in compliance. State prisons risk losing valuable federal dollars if they don’t bring their facilities up to code. But jails rarely receive federal money.
“Abuse in jail is every bit as bad as in prison,” says Daley. “It’s going to be incredibly difficult to tell if facilities are in compliance.”
There are other problems. Immigration detention facilities aren’t covered under the rules. And while male guards are now banned from patting down female inmates, female guards can still have free reign over male inmates.
All the same, prisoner rights advocates are thrilled with the new rules. “There’s still plenty of work left to do,” says Daley. “But a lot of times in the social justice world we don’t stop to savor our victories. This is a huge moment that we should celebrate.”
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