Nicole Wolfe was just two months into her life sentence for attempted murder when she says a lieutenant at the Central California Women’s Facility began raping her. About six months later, in the fall of 1998, a nurse at the prison also began sexually assaulting her.
It was hell for Wolfe, who was assaulted continuously for a year while she was at the California prison.
In 2000, Wolfe was transferred to a different prison. There, she met with a counselor and for the first time was able to process all of the abuse she’d faced over the years. She says the counselor, Debora Heaps, changed her life — because Heaps believed her story.
“She was just so open and receptive and gentle and understanding, and had so much information, too,” Wolfe tells NationSwell. “She made me feel like a human… It was like she opened up a path to recovery for the first time in my life. I could see my life could be different, and better.”
Wolfe is hardly alone in having experienced sexual assault while behind bars. The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that four percent of adult inmates in jails and prisons had reported a sexual assault, and about half of those instances of assault were from corrections staff. Mapping that data over the total incarcerated population of the U.S., it’s estimated that 200,000 imprisoned people endure sexual assault each year.
Through the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which passed in 2003, detention facilities are partnering with their local rape crisis centers to provide support services to incarcerated populations. Those services can take the form of access to a rape crisis hotline, the ability to write letters to rape crisis centers or receive in-person counseling, much like Wolfe was able to receive from Heaps. And counselors like Heaps can accompany inmates to forensic exams if they decide to report an assault.
AN AMBITIOUS BILL
When President George W. Bush signed PREA into law, it was intended to curb the thousands of reported cases of sexual misconduct — a problem that advocates describe as an epidemic — and to establish grants for nonprofits to aid in eliminating rape in prisons.
PREA, though ambitious, was an aspirational piece of legislation that required deep and time-consuming analyses of inmate conditions. And so prison rapes continued: Four years after the bill was passed, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that an estimated 70,000 people were abused in prisons the previous year.
In 2013, the Department of Justice updated PREA with a set of standards that required prisons and jails to provide inmates with access to outside counseling or emotional support services. Private and public prisons, local jails, juvenile detention centers, immigrant detention centers, and community corrections facilities must now provide access to outside emotional support services to any inmate who is sexually assaulted in prison and to inmates who experienced past sexual assaults.
Women who face sexual harassment in detention have often faced it before: 86 percent of women in jail report experiencing sexual violence prior to incarceration, according to a 2016 study by the nonprofit research and policy organization Vera Institute of Justice.
But women often don’t come forward about their assaults.
In 1995, only a quarter of U.S. women reported incidents of sexual abuse to police. And even though that number increased to 59 percent in 2005, reports dropped dramatically back to 1990s levels by 2010, according to a 2016 Bureau of Justice Statistics report.
Karin Stone, director of client services for Women’s Center High Desert, says people who experience sexual abuse as children or repeated sexual assault usually turn to crime as a coping mechanism.
“If you start to, we call it ‘peel the onion,’ you discover those layers of trauma,” says Stone. “It amazes me sometimes that they’ve survived as long as they have.”
The pattern — abuse, trauma, crime — is one that Stone says will continue to repeat itself even after inmates leave prison if they never receive therapy or learn healthy coping mechanisms.
The quality of support services for incarcerated survivors varies widely across the U.S., but recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics indicates that the PREA may be having a positive effect in that more inmates are reporting sexual assault. In 2011, correctional administrators received 8,768 reports of sexual misconduct from inmates. In 2015, that number more than tripled to 24,661 reports.
“You would think that more reports [mean] a rise in incidents,” says Jesse Lerner-Kinglake, communications director at Just Detention International (JDI), an organization devoted to ending sexual abuse behind bars. “But in fact the most important thing that it tells us is that people are coming forward, which is what we want.”
“I WAS LIVING MY WORST NIGHTMARE”
Wolfe says she was first sexually assaulted by a family member when she was only 4 years old. She was assaulted again during her youth and also as a young adult. Part of the problem, she says, is that she grew up in a family where nobody knew what was going on behind closed doors, which is why no one tried to stop the abuse.
“I didn’t know anything different,” she says, adding that sexual abuse “was just a given” in her life.
But abuse tends to follow people throughout their lives.
In 1997, Wolfe says she felt trapped in an abusive marriage, and tried to kill her then-husband in what she described as a desperate act to escape the cycle of abuse. “I couldn’t get away,” she says. “I couldn’t see my way out.” She was sentenced to life in prison for attempted murder. It was only when she was locked up behind bars that she says she finally felt safe.
But that feeling of safety wouldn’t last. Within her first year of incarceration, Wolfe says she was raped by a prison lieutenant. She was afraid to report him because he had power and influence over her life in prison. On Sundays, he ran the gate that inmates had to go through to see visitors, and he would assault her before she went through the gates before her visits. “I would go to my visits just…out of my mind,” says Wolfe. “I was afraid to say anything to anybody because I was serving a life sentence. Nobody ever believed me. Why [would] they believe me now?”
Wolfe felt like she couldn’t trust any of the psychologists who worked for the prison. When she did finally seek care, she was abused yet again by a nurse on staff. For six months, she was repeatedly assaulted by both the lieutenant and the nurse.
“I thought, I’m supposed to be here for the rest of my life, and is this the rest of my life?” she says. “I was living in my worst nightmare.”
Wolfe says the nurse who assaulted her was eventually caught by a prison official and convicted of sex with a confined person. Wolfe then took a risk and told a prison psychologist “in confidence” about the lieutenant, but the psychologist reported it to the prison, and another investigation began. Wolfe doesn’t know the outcome of that investigation.
NationSwell requested records for both the lieutenant and the nurse, but neither were provided by the time of publication. A spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) confirmed that the nurse worked for the prison, but said the department could not comment on any investigation. CDCR sent NationSwell the following statement regarding investigations into both the nurse and the lieutenant:
“We can’t speak to the specific allegations mentioned here, but staff sexual misconduct is an issue we take very seriously. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) maintains a zero tolerance for staff sexual misconduct, and thoroughly investigates all allegations. If an investigation proves there was wrongdoing, CDCR staff may face disciplinary action and/or referral for criminal prosecution.”
In 2000, Wolfe was transferred to California Institution for Women, a state prison. It was there where Wolfe met Heaps for the first time. Heaps, who is now the director of programs at Riverside Area Rape Crisis Center, was one of the first counselors sent into prisons to provide in-person therapy to inmates who had been sexually assaulted, and also to inmates who had faced sexual harassment prior to their incarceration.
“From the very beginning, it was like there was someone I could really be completely honest with and feel like I had complete confidentiality,” Wolfe says.
ANECDOTAL EVIDENCE OF HELP
An increase in allegations doesn’t mean an increase in justice for survivors. Of the more than 24,000 allegations of sexual violence from inmates in 2015, only 1,473 were substantiated by investigations, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics report released this past July.
“It shows that the investigations are failing,” says Lerner-Kinglake. “It’s simply not believable that the overwhelming majority of people are making it up or that there wasn’t enough evidence.”
Though there’s no research that proves access to counseling and emotional support helps incarcerated survivors of sexual assault, other rehabilitative programs in prisons and jails have proven to successfully reduce recidivism.
A May 2018 White House report found that mental health programs and substance abuse programs reduce recidivism by 21 percent and 17 percent, respectively. And a number of reports have found that therapy reduces PTSD and anxiety for survivors of rape who aren’t incarcerated.
In lieu of empirical evidence, advocates also point to the experiences they’re having every day with survivors in detention.
Jennifer Jeanquart, a prison rape crisis advocate who works for Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands in six men’s detention facilities in South Carolina, shared a letter she received from one of the clients she counseled.
“I don’t know where I would be if it was not for you. I can never thank you enough for the help you gave me,” the letter reads. “I’ll always remember you, Mrs. J. You have inspired me to help other people like myself.”
Jessica Seipel, program director at JDI, also wrote letters to a survivor named Joe Booth, who says he was raped by his cellmate. Booth later told Seipel that she was the first person who asked him his name. Staff at the prison had previously only called him by his inmate number. Seipel says she was just doing her job and supporting a survivor, but “little did I know that for this person…my letters were like a lifeline for him that saved his life.”
Heaps says none of her clients ever blamed other people for the crimes they committed, but that counseling helped them discover what led them down that path.
“Trauma is a very complex thing,” Heaps says. “If not processed through counseling and therapy, it can lead down a very dark path of vulnerability and victimization.”
Heaps and Wolfe worked together for more than a year, and Wolfe says that it completely changed her life. In 2013, she was released from prison after multiple appeals to the parole board. She says Heaps gave her the “tool box” she needed to break free of the cycles that led to her abuse.
“If I hadn’t been able to figure out how to live my life without being abused, and if I hadn’t found my voice, then I’d never be where I am today,” Wolfe says. “I could very easily be back in an abusive relationship, killed by an abusive man, or cowering somewhere, afraid of my own shadow. And I’m not.”