A Familiar Story

The Senate confirmation hearings and the ugly reality of prison rape.

Posted Oct 06, 2018

Here is a synopsis of the drama recently watched by a nation on television.  A teen-age boy tries to rape a younger girl, he forgets the drunken event while she obsesses about it for many years (the trauma survivor never forgets the event, to the perpetrator it was less significant, soon to be forgotten).  Years later he, now Judge Brett Kavanaugh, has his photo on front pages across the country as a selection for the Supreme Court.  She, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, confronts him as if to say, “what about that time you tried to rape me?”  Before that confrontation could possibly happen, she had to resolve one lingering issue: whether she should come forward and subject herself to all the invasion of privacy, disrespect and outright attacks that would inevitably come her way.  And he had to decide how best to handle her question.  Should he confess that events occurred back then when he was young about which he is not proud?  Or does he stonewall her, flat out deny it ever happened, and simply act authoritative in public appearances and keep insisting on his innocence.   She decided to step forward, he to stonewall.  Their encounter was far from private.  There were interviewers and cameras everywhere, and a record number of people watched the Senate Intelligence Committee’s all day meeting on September 27 where she told her side of the story and he his.  Then the public was brought into the fray.  There were articles explaining why the testimony of one or the other was credible, or not.  There was a Saturday Night Live impersonation of the Judge by Matt Damon.  There were many talking heads on TV.  I thought I heard the screams of at least one angry Patriarch about how the #MeToo movement was trampling on his rights. 

And then patriarchal power won out.  The Senate confirmed the Judge.  But there are scars from the battle.  There are a large number of women who rightly feel betrayed, a group of powerful men seemed to be acting respectfully toward a woman who had been brave enough to come forward and tell her story, but in the end they proceeded full steam to confirm the Judge.  From the Judge’s perspective, and the President’s, they once more won an important battle by standing firm, refusing to back down, acting belligerently, ignoring what the other side had to say, and threatening unspoken reprisals if any Republican, for instance, voted against them.  Does all this bode well for our democracy?

A remarkably similar scenario plays out in women’s prisons around the country today.  As a psychiatric expert witness in court, I am called upon to investigate prisoners’ complaints of sexual abuse.  In men’s prisons, it’s usually prisoner against prisoner, perhaps one man rapes another after conquering him in a vicious fight.  In women’s prisons it’s usually a case of male staff abusing women prisoners.  The prison scenario has a lot in common with the recent Senate Judiciary confirmation hearings.  There is the long delay between when a sexual assault happens and when the woman survivor reports it or complains.  In the lawsuit, Neal vs. Michigan Department of Corrections, the Attorney General argued in defense of the Department that the women prisoners who were claiming they were sexually assaulted or raped waited six months or a year to report the abuse, and because they delayed reporting they are not credible reporters about the assault itself.  (President Trump made the exact same totally erroneous claim about Dr. Ford’s testimony).  The survivors, women prisoners, struggle from then on with persistent memories of the trauma and other posttraumatic symptoms.  Then, when the women come forward and report the sexual abuse -- often that was after they met the legal team headed by attorney Deborah LaBelle that was filing a class action lawsuit about sexual abuse and custodial misconduct in Michigan’s women’s prisons -- they are put through grueling interrogations and eventually they are told it is her word against his, and since the administration of the Department of Corrections values officers’ reports of events over reports by prisoners, no action will be taken.  And she will be returned to the prison where she will be under control of the officer against whom she charged sexual assault. 

This dark scenario is very familiar to a lot of women, and men who care about gender justice.  That is why women around the country exhibited bumper stickers saying “We believe you, Anita Hill.”  This is why there were large demonstrations outside the Senate demanding that Dr. Ford be believed and Judge Kavanaugh not be confirmed.  I did not hear much discussion among the Senators about the possibility that Judge Kavanaugh might have been guilty of attempted rape or of lying under oath.  When women prisoners are raped by male officers, the code of silence is strictly adhered to by all other officers.  They will not inform on each other, it is their culture.  Similarly, Judge Kavanaugh is exonerated, and people feel much less need to talk about all the evidence that supports Dr. Ford’s telling of the story.