Slut Shaming our Refugees

Forgive me. I’m angry. My client was a victim of sexual abuse at the Berks Family Shelter. My client is a 20 year old mother who fled Central America with her three year old son. They were fleeing horrific domestic violence, including sexual assaults. My client had made this journey twice after being ignored, belittled and demeaned by the first set of border patrol agents she met. They ignored her pleas for refuge and deported her back to her country where she again was harmed and threatened with torture and death by the father of her son. This time she escaped again with her son and was allowed in to have her day in court before an immigration judge.

She and her boy were taken to the Berks Family Shelter in Leesport, PA, a prison with crayons. Soon after she arrived a male guard at night took notice of her and began attempting to befriend her. She ignored him but he was persistent. He plied her with treats and allowed her to use his cell phone. He began to promise to make her immigration process go easier and even promised to pay her bond. She became closer to him and soon they began a sexual relationship. Under federal law this is called sexual abuse of a ward and is a strict liability offense, which means there are no defenses of consent like in a traditional sexual assault. This is akin to sexual assaults of a minor or those who are incapable of consent and this is for very good reason. The power dynamics of a guard and a prisoner are such that the concept of consent in these circumstances are not as they are in a traditional sense. In this instance, women who many have been victims of severe sexual assaults and trauma in their past are particularly vulnerable, as was my client.

My client and this guard were caught on at least one occasion by a 7 year old girl who had her own history of trauma caused by sexual violence. This relationship was common knowledge among the other detainees, which brought my client shame and embarrassment. This guard told my client that if she told anyone he would go to jail and she would be deported. This terrified my client and she kept quiet.

The supervisors at the Shelter spoke with my client and she denied the relationship out of fear. They spoke with the 7 year old girl and others at the Shelter who confirmed the relationship. ICE investigators interviewed my client without my knowledge and out of fear she denied the relationship. During neither of these interviews did anyone tell my client that she had done nothing wrong and that the guard was the one that had committed the crime. She remained afraid.

My client finally confided in me and I explained the law. She felt ashamed, embarrassed, used, manipulated and victimized by the system she had put her trust in. The Shelter finally addressed the issue by prohibiting tight clothing, like yoga pants and tight shirts. The other women blame her. The Shelter seems to be blaming her.

This will not stand. This cannot stand. I am angry and sad, but I am not disheartened. I know my client is strong and I believe in our system and I believe our system will correct this wrong. I am angry about my client, but I am also angry about the other women and children whose only crime was to seek out our country for protection and we greet them with prisons with crayons. The most vulnerable amongst us sought us out because we are good and decent. It is about time we stop making them look like fools and start living up to their expectations.

Prisons with Crayons: Our Grapes of Wrath

There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificates – died of malnutrition – because the food must rot, must be forced to rot. – The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck


As I was walking out of the Berks Family Shelter, a prison with crayons in central Pennsylvania, this passage from The Grapes of Wrath came to mind. On our way in some guards were loading about ten kids, ages 5-10 into a van to take them to Loews in order to take part in the Saturday kids activities they have there, arts and crafts and the such. They looked really happy. It made me feel good for a moment until I remembered that these kids are in jail. They are going to do arts and crafts with prison guards as their chaperones. The cute paintings on the walls and toys in the common area doesn’t change the fact that these children are imprisoned when they do not need to be.

This is the crime that goes beyond denunciation. The vast majority of these kids, if not all, and the so many more like them in Artesia and Carnes and whatever new fangled prison with crayons has opened since I sat down to write this, have caring and loving homes somewhere in the United States that could take them and their moms in while their legal process takes its course. They could be going to Loews with their moms, fathers, uncles, grandpas, older brothers, just anyone other than prison guards. They could bring home their little bird feeder they made and show it with pride to their grandma or their big sister. Instead it will sit on a shelf in their cells with their other property.

They fled their home countries out of fear, with many having either witnessed and/or experienced horrible things that makes you shake and weep. This is  the sorrow that weeping cannot symbolize. My three year old client from Honduras witnessed his mother take daily savage beatings from his father and watched as he raped her repeatedly before his eyes. When he would attempt to comfort his mother he would be beaten as well. In order to escape these beatings and rapes the mother would take him and sleep outside in the woods. When they were able they fled to seek the protection of our great country. His mom is 19 years old and was attempting to reunite with her mother. That reunification will have to wait.

They have a place with fertile earth, trees in straight rows and ripe fruit in order to lay their heads and seek shelter. This place is with her mother and not in jail but there is no profit to turn from these two refugees staying with their family. The pragmatic and compassionate solution of allowing these refugees to reunite with family doesn’t make the President look tough and serious on enforcement and the President needs to look tough and serious. He needs to fill out those death certificates in order for the rest of the crops to be prosperous or so he believes.

The fruit must rot. The fruit most be forced to rot. These kids most be imprisoned and they must be deported. This is the failure that topples all of our successes. This is our grapes of wrath.