As we’ve previously discussed on Pigeonly’s blog, it’s not exactly uncommon for correctional officers and other prison personnel to overstep their bounds – and violate their prisoners’ rights in the process.
Unfortunately, when this abuse occurs, inmates and their loved ones often feel utterly powerless – causing them to stay silent instead of coming forward and risking further abuse. Of course, staying silent only gives more power to the guards responsible for the abuse in the first place.
Still, it’s certainly difficult for a loved one to report suspected abuse to the authorities, since they may not know exactly how to go about doing so. And, of course, it’s difficult to trust “the authorities,” since the abuse their loved one is experiencing is being committed by an authority figure in the first place.
With all this being said, it’s essential that you know exactly what to do if you suspect your loved one’s rights are being violated by the very people who are supposed to be protecting them. In this article, we’ll guide you through the process of reporting such abuse in order to get your loved one the protection they deserve.
The Prevalence of Abuse in the US Prison System
Before we get into exactly what you can do to help your incarcerated loved one, we need to make a few things clear.
First things first: you – and your loved one – are not alone. As we mentioned earlier, abuse by prison guards and other personnel is not uncommon by any stretch.
A few stats:
- 21% of prisoners say they’ve been physically assaulted by prison staff
- It’s estimated that prison guards are responsible for half of all sexual assaults in prison
- A 2013 survey found that more than 80,000 prisoners have been the victim of sexual assault, either by fellow inmates or prison guards
Sadly, with regard to that last statistic, this number is five times higher than the “official” statistic. In other words, most cases of sexual abuse (and other such abuse) by prison guards goes largely unreported by victims and their families.
The second thing we need to point out is that is that “abuse” isn’t always as obvious or severe as physical or sexual assault. Discrimination, verbal abuse, and negligence are not only mentally and emotionally damaging, but can also put an inmate’s physical health in danger, as well.
While you shouldn’t exactly expect your loved one’s prison experience to be comfortable or anything like that, you definitely want to ensure their lives aren’t being put in danger by correctional officers or other prison faculty members.
So, let’s get into what you can do to ensure the safety of your incarcerated loved one throughout the remainder of their prison sentence.
What to Do If Your Loved One is Being Abused in Prison
If you suspect an imprisoned loved one is being abused, or that their rights are being violated in any way, you need to take immediate action.
Here, we’ll explain the process you’ll need to go through to be sure that the abuse of your loved one ceases immediately, and that the person (or people) responsible for the abuse face the consequences of their actions.
Alleviate Your Loved One’s Worries
As we mentioned earlier, inmate abuse by prison guards often goes unreported for a variety of reasons:
- Prisoners are sometimes ashamed or embarrassed to admit the abuse
- They feel like no one will believe them
- They think the guard or guards will retaliate for reporting the abuse
So, if you even suspect a loved one is being abused in prison, you’ll need to make them understand that you definitely believe them, and are willing to do whatever it takes to keep them safe throughout their sentence.
But let’s back up a little. Your loved one might not even tell you they’re being abused in the first place – which means you need to be extra perceptive to some of the warning signs of such abuse.
Aside from the obvious signs of abuse (such as bruises, cuts, and other physical evidence), you also want to pay attention to possible changes in their behavior, communications, and overall demeanor. For example, when visiting your loved one, you might notice that they’re less talkative than usual, or are speaking extra carefully around a specific guard. Many of these warning signs will probably be very subtle, so it’s important that you pay extra close attention to your loved one whenever you get the chance to speak with them.
If you suspect a loved one is being abused – or if they tell you straight out – the most important thing to do is let them know you hear them, you believe them, and you’re going to help them. While it may be a bit difficult to communicate all of this verbally (as you and your loved one likely won’t want to say too much while others are present), try to do as much as you can to let them know you’re going to take action right away.
Remember the Details
At this stage, it’s vital that your loved one retains as much information about the abuse as possible.
Now, as we’ve said, we don’t advise you to speak freely with your loved one about the abuse they’ve suffered, for a variety of reasons. Unfortunately, your loved one probably won’t want to commit any accusations to writing at the current time, as their possessions are always subject to search and seizure while incarcerated.
While it may be difficult for them to do, tell your loved one to try and keep a running record of as many details regarding the abuse as they can, including:
- Dates and the approximate time at which the abuse occurred
- The name and physical description of the perpetrator
- The location of the incident(s)
- A specific description of the exact abuse that occurred
- The names and descriptions of any potential witnesses (both inmates and personnel)
Additionally, your loved one will want to keep track of any physical evidence of the abuse that may fade over time (such as bruising, scarring, etc.). While they probably won’t be able to maintain this evidence over time, it’s certainly information their attorney will want to keep track of.
Speaking of attorneys…
Contact an Attorney
Immediately after you’ve discovered (or even suspected) that your loved one is facing some kind of abuse from prison personnel, you need to contact an attorney.
Make sure that the lawyer (or lawyers) you contact specializes in civil rights violations, as they’ll have a better idea of how to go about solving your loved one’s problem.
Often, attorneys will provide a basic consultation free of charge, allowing you and your loved one to plead your case without having to spend a small fortune on legal fees. You can also contact the ACLU, which will help connect you to an affordable attorney who will stop at nothing to ensure not only that your loved one’s abuse ceases immediately, but also that they receive compensation for being subjected to such horrible treatment.
Now, just as your loved one’s communications with their attorney were privileged during their initial arrest, trial, and other proceedings, so will any communications between a lawyer regarding these violations of civil rights.
Best case scenario, here, is that the attorney you contacted sets up a face-to-face meeting with your loved one, where they’ll be free to talk about the abuse without the fear of prison personnel eavesdropping.
However, if an attorney isn’t immediately available to meet with your loved one, you’ll at the very least want to make sure your loved one writes to them via privileged mail as soon as possible. In the same way that their meeting with an attorney must be kept private, any written communication between your loved one and their attorney must also be kept away from prying eyes.
When your loved one writes this letter, they must make it incredibly clear that the letter is being sent to their attorney. They can do this by including the following on the envelope of the letter being sent:
- The attorney’s full name
- Their title
- Notification that the letter in question is “legal mail, to be opened in front of inmate only”
(Note: While prison personnel can open the envelope in front of the inmate to check for contraband, they cannot read the contents of the letter.)
Be Supportive – But Cautious
After you’ve facilitated the initial contact between your loved one and their attorney, your best bet is to let the attorney handle everything from that moment on.
Still, you’ll want to continue showing support for your loved one as they go through the potential litigation to follow. While you shouldn’t discuss anything related to their civil complaint when contacting them, you definitely want to be there for them as much as you can, and try to get their mind off of everything whenever you get the chance to speak with them.
Pigeonly can help you stay in touch with your incarcerated loved one in a variety of ways, allowing you to continue playing a supporting role in your friend or family member’s life as they deal with such a traumatic experience.