William Newman: Why Elizabeth Reid wants prison reform now
NORTHAMPTON — “Take a warning: this story is graphic and despicable.” So begins Elizabeth Reid’s article in a recent Yale Law Journal.
Her next sentence: “Rape always is.”
Reid grabs you and won’t let you go. She weaves her story between the enumerated paragraphs of the complaint (a complaint is the paper that begins a civil lawsuit) in Doe v. Clark, a Washington state case.
That class action alleged multiple sexual assaults at Department of Correction facilities for women; failure to protect those women; failure by officials to investigate sexual assaults; and retaliation against women who dared to take on the system and actually report them.
Interspersed between the comparatively dry statements of the legal theories, Reid describes being raped while serving time.
And what happened. And what didn’t.
Nearing the end of her prison sentence, she was sent to a halfway house. It was a huge step towards freedom. She felt ecstatic. But not for long.
There a male staff member ordered her to help him carry some pillows and blankets out of a storage closet. She did as instructed. “What was I supposed to do? Disobey a direct order?” she writes.
He took her to the storage closet.
“I can still hear the keys jangling as he turned them in the lock of the door. Something awful was about to happen. I knew this as surely as I knew my own name… I can still hear the click.”
When he locked the door and took out a prophylactic, she negotiated and pleaded and resisted as best she could.
“When he was finished with me, I ran to the bathroom and threw up until I dry heaved. When I got in the shower and started scrubbing, I couldn’t stop.”
Reid didn’t report the rape. Reporting a rape would mean being thrown into the hole, solitary confinement at the prison, for the rest of her sentence. This was the protocol. By guaranteeing the immediate punishment of the victim, the system assured that very few rapes and sexual assaults would be reported. Inside there was nothing Elizabeth Reid could do.
“We kept quiet. Over and over again. We kept quiet. I had felt helplessness in my life before prison. But I had to go to prison to understand what true powerlessness was.”
Reid’s rape is not an isolated incident. To the contrary, there is a pandemic of rape in our prisons, and there has been for decades. A recent government study reports 216,000 prison rapes and sexual assaults per year and cautions that this number, which seeks to include guard-on-inmate and inmate-on-inmate sexual assaults, is probably low.
Reid held on to the hope of finding justice after her release. After all, unlike most inmate rape victims, she was near the end of her sentence, and she had dramatic proof.
The case would not be her word against his because the rapist-guard had distinguishing marks that could be seen only with his pants down.
But the civilian cops didn’t investigate their brother law enforcement officer. She states succinctly, “Law enforcement won’t serve and protect me. I am a felon.”
A decade ago, Congress peeked behind the razor wires and enacted the nice sounding Prison Rape Elimination Act. This is how Reid sees it:
“The prison administration vigorously publicizes the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA).They tell us we have rights…[that] they are there to help us. It even sounds noble… as if they believe what they are saying. . [But] under the cloak of the PREA, things have not changed.”
Prison and government officials have spent 10 years ignoring that law, and Reid’s article describes how only through the extraordinary efforts of a handful of prisoners’ rights lawyers and advocates has the law been enforced at all. The Washington case is one example.
That litigation resulted in the state paying millions of dollars in damages and legal fees and firing some guards. In addition, the state was required to install video surveillance in secluded areas in institutions where the guards preyed on inmates. Women who report assaults will not be shipped to segregation, and investigation will be taken seriously.
Elizabeth Reid is now a prison rights advocate. She graduated from community college this spring and will be attending the University of Washington this fall. Her long-term goal is to become a lawyer specializing in public policy and social justice.
Her story is a testament to human resiliency. She shows that a few people can survive incarceration and thrive after it not because of our system of punishment and imprisonment, but despite it. Her concluding sentence, however, is not entirely celebratory.
She writes, “My rapist will never be held accountable. He got away with it And me? Well, I may be free, but I got a life sentence.”
William Newman is a Northampton lawyer and host of a WHMP weekday program. His column appears the first Saturday of the month. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.