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When a prisoner is a victim of sexual assault



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The first decision that I had to make when I found the man beside my bed – if you can describe my frantic call as a “decision” – came a day later when a police officer contacted me to ask if I wanted to be prosecuted.

In 105 days he was the first stranger to enter our home. It was 4:00 a.m. a Friday and my husband who works nightly in an office in our backyard was listening to music with headphones. He didn’t hear the stranger passing through the gate, walking up the back steps, and entering through the back door of our house.

I woke when the man turned the bedroom lights on. For an instant, I was simply confused, bewildered by my sleeplessness. The stranger was standing by my bedside. His large, protruding eyes looked down at me and there appeared to be something like a smile on his face. I asked the obvious questions. I can’t recall exactly what I said, but they were the questions of someone whose bewilderment had quickly turned to terror. Who are you? What are you doing? The stranger said to me he had permission to be in my room. You said it would be good to end things. He stepped closer to the bed. He slipped his hands under the cover and I felt the shock of his fingers slipping up my leg.

That is when I started to cry though the word scream does not really express the animal sound deep and ragged that ripped from my chest. For two weeks my voice was hitty, my throat rough. It hurts to speak.

The roar woke our two teenage children – my younger daughter and my son – who ran down the hall. They faced the stranger they found sitting beside their parents’ bed. They didn’t stop thinking anymore. My daughter he grabbed by his sweatshirt, pulled him out of the bedroom and pushed him down the stairs. She pushed her brother outside the door with the help of her brother. I called 911.

This wasn’t the first 911 call I had made the week before in a strange coincidence. The previous Monday morning a man in his early 20s knocked on our door and begged for help. He could not remember his name or where he lived he said. He had a big bump on his head. His clothes were dirty and there was a hole in the hoof of one of his Vans, but he was dutyfully carrying a mask. He said he didn’t know where he was or why he had decided to come to our house. The eyes above the mask looked wild and fearful.

At first I did not call 911 that time. I live in Berkeley, California, which is not like many cities to maintain a crisis team for this kind of mental health crisis. However, the team hours are limited; 11:30 to 10 p.m., five days a week. No one answered when I called. I felt I had no other option besides to call 911.

The dispatcher that responded to us told me that we had a stranger at our home who seemed to be in the midst of some sort of psychiatric crisis, perhaps caused by an obvious head injury. He appeared vulnerable rather than dangerous, I said, and we need an ambulance, not the police – and certainly not armed police. The dispatcher informed me that I did not have the right or authority to dictate what kind of action would be required based upon the situation. I turned the phone off.

The young man had drifted from the porch to the front yard where my daughter and husband tried to calm him and find out what they could about him—at no effect. Every once in a while some clarity appeared to overwhelm him about his state of grievance but he couldn’t put the source of his fear into words. He seemed to be about the age of my eldest child ; I could have been his mother. If he kept his feet away and spoke in the same soothing tone I used to calm my children when they were small, I invited him to sit in an Adirondack chair and urged him to count his breaths.

At the same time, I tried to think of someone, anybody who could help without threatening the threat of force. Finally, I called 911 again and hoped for a more cooperating dispatcher. I used my best sensible, nice voice, rather than screaming Karen to get it. The second dispatcher promised that she would tell the responder that the young man needed help, not violent intervention. My husband and I sat with him until the police arrived and he asked us to read him a paragraph at a time. He greeted my husband’s recitation of Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” with a request for a “good poetry.” Well, you are likely to succeed. As the officer appeared I went hoogling happy poem frantically.

Her response was initially gruff, but when the man panicked and we asked her to be gentler, she agreed. EMTs finally arrived and took this fragile young man to an ER. Afterwards, my husband and I discussed the incident with our children at the recent push to defund the police. We noted that the officer in our wealthy, mostly white Berkeley neighborhood had accepted when we insisted that she avoided a confrontation. Even when the young man became agitated — first when he saw her, and then when the ambulance came up—it met our request that she not escalate the matter. We tell our children no doubt that her accommodating approach had a lot to do with the fact that both the stranger and us were white.

Day later, after calling 911 with an invader in my house, I did not set any conditions. Sobbing, tripping, I just churned: “There is a man in my house! There is a man in my house! “We responded to the call within minutes! One officer took my statement; another took my husband and others fled the area. Two more interviewed my children in different rooms, and they provided detailed and congruent descriptions of the intruder: skinny, jumpy, bug eyes, loose hoodie, shorts, beat-up sneakers, black backpacks. Old enough to have lines on his face The skin was brown, said a ; sage. Maybe he was Filipino. The responding officer sent the description over radio and a few minutes later had a call that officers had held a suspect. My children were loaded into separate trucks and driven along the man whom the police held and cuffed.

He was a black man with nothing to share with the intrusionist but his backpack. My daughter was so infuriated she started crying. My son could not stop thinking about the way the man had looked back at him as the police car rolled by – not angry but resigned Who knows how many times over the years, months or even days he had been stopped by police?

Ten minutes later, police a guy came to the table. By now it was five in the morning Again they bundled my son and daughter exhausted and wired into separate cruisers and drove them past suspects. It was the ringer; neither one had any doubt. He was taken to jail and convicted of two felony counts.

The case of the troubled young man is straightforward — a clear example of when weapon-wielding police officers can easily do more harm than good. It is argued that police functions should be “disaggregated” among others – mental-health professionals should respond to incidents with people like the young man, substance-abuse counselors should deal with drug-related crises, experienced mediators should address situations that require conflict resolution, and so on.

Mariame Kaba, an organizer against criminalization, wants to shift our focus. She said that there will always be violence regardless of the system. The question that Kaba thinks we have to ask is why law enforcement, an institution that exists to keep us safe, so often does the opposite. For years, decades, centuries, Black people have wrestled with the question whether to bring in the authorities for serious and not so serious crimes and often rejected the option as too dangerous — for themselves, the perpetrator or others in their community.

Many people who have been sexually assaulted have experiences like Unbelievable Marie, who was raped and then repeatedly victimized by misogynistic, incompetent cops who refused to believe her story. In fact, she was one of the early victims of a serial rapist who attacked at least half a dozen other women. More generally, the police are exceptionally ineffective at catching perpetrators of violence, especially sexual offenders. (The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) allows in only 20 percent of reported sexual assaults an arrest and only 10 percent of those arrested end up in jail time.

From the August 2019 issue: An epidemic of deceit

The NYU officer and managing project argues that investigating crimes is not a natural function for police, at least not as they are currently recruited and trained. Recent breakthroughs in forensic science indicate that we need way less police and much more pragmatic evidence collection and evaluation to get things right, he wrote. Investigators need scientific expertise as well as sophisticated interviewing skills characterized by “a certain combination of skepticism and emotional intelligence”: the ability to make people feel comfortable on opening up while simultaneously examining to ensure that their stories are tacked together. Even the pursuit and apprehending of offenders would be better served by a rightsized public safety response team, it appears – a corps possibly screened for racism and trained in de-escalation and the avoidance of force.

The first decision I had to make when I found the man by my bed – if you can describe my frantic call as a “decision” – came a day later when a police officer contacted me to ask whether I wanted to be prosecuted. In the midst of a trauma that I was busy underestimating (“I’m okay. Okay, I’m fine. I tried to balance a host of considerations seriously. My children and I would be willing to testify if he went to trial to begin with. I have seen what a competent defense lawyer can do to a witness. I was a competent defense attorney who set traps for people, tied them in their own words, doing my best to stir confusion and fear. Could my children and I stand up to that? Would returning the trauma be worth it?

Knowing that the majority of criminal cases ended in a plea agreement, no court required, somewhat helped relieve my anxiety, but it didn’t make the decision more easily. How could I condemn someone to the brutality of the incarceration when I’ve long advocated for the abolishment of prisons? I even edited a book called, a collection of first-person stories meant to illuminate the countless human rights violations that plague US prisons.

My family and I would not be feeling safer while the man was bound. Since he stole into my bedroom, I’ve been waking up in terror many nights a night. Before we go to bed, I often ask my husband if he has locked the doors and the alarm on? For weeks, my son saw the man in dark rooms from the corner of his eye, and he went to sleep with a hammer next to his pillow.

But what about when my attacker escaped—was there a chance he might be less of a threat to me or someone else? According to the investigating detective, his record includes at least one psychiatric hold, suggesting that his violent behavior may be partly from some form of mental illness. He looked definitely unbalanced when he leeringly insists that he had been invited into my house, that everything was okay. Although a large number of people in American prisons are mentally ill, very few receive any sort of psychological treatment. The harsh confinements could equally easily make him less stable and not more stable. Some jails have programs specifically aimed at the rehabilitation of sex offenders, but their effectiveness has been the subject of much debate over the years.

It does not need to be this way. Scandinavian penal systems for example are hardly perfect : They provide treatment and therapy with the aim of making better citizens known in the world. In America we focus on punishment in the misguided belief that it will deter offender. In fact, the severe punishment does little to discourage the crime. What deter criminals is the certainty of being captured, but as I have said, this is not a certainty the American justice system begins to provide.

The downside is that I would be involved in a deeply unjust system that I worked to eliminate years to if I were to be prosecuted. Yet if I failed to do so, the guy who entered my room may hurt someone else. If Unbelievable’s Marie had been taken at her word, there would have been no other women raped. I went to the front.

There was a final bad choice I had to make. The deputy prosecutor called to ask me what kind of plea I would accept. Was I damned for whoever would plead guilty to the sexual offense of breaking and entering. A sexual crime? Or would I allow a plea to enter intruder alone? The latter carries a maximum of four years sentence with the expectation that the liar will serve half the time. The former demands 15 years to life. For the purpose of sexual assault, California law does not resemble burglary, wrote the deputy DA.

In the state of custody for two to four years. Five years to life. How can I weigh my fear for myself and others against the fact that prisons are dehumanizing, virtually useless for rehabilitation and usually ban out people who are far worse for condition now that they are entered in them? Over the years, I’d heard that 60 to 80 percent of sexual agressors commit additional sex crimes, but when I looked at the data I found that this is a wild exaggeration, a kind of urban myth. The best rates recidivism 3 years after an offense and 3 percent years out at 24 percent Still, it is too soon. Those numbers are not nothing and they come with the caveat that many sex crimes go unreported; who knows what the true picture actually is?

I tried to think of an alternative path for me that envisioned a transformed criminal justice system, better for all. I could not come up with anything else. As Mariame Kaba points out, this pathetic system has “disciplined our imaginations”.

After the break-in night, I made my husband switch my side of the bed with me. After 28 years, I now sleep on “his” side, on the farthest from the door. That’s in this case as close to transformation as anyone is likely to be.

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