Just Detention International

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Just Detention International (JDI), a health and human rights organization headquartered in Los Angeles, is the only organization in the United States dedicated exclusively to ending sexual abuse in detention. JDI also has offices in Washington, D.C., and Johannesburg, South Africa.


JDI was founded in 1980 by Russell Dan Smith as People Organized to Stop the Rape of Imprisoned Persons (POSRIP) and was soon renamed Stop Prisoner Rape. In 2008, the organization changed its name to Just Detention International, in recognition of its work in all forms of detention and beyond the United States.[1] Two of the organization’s early leaders were Tom Cahill and Stephen Donaldson (also known as “Donny the Punk”).[2]

Like many of the people involved in the beginning days of the organization, Smith, Cahill, and Donaldson were all survivors of rape behind bars. Donaldson died in 1996 as a result of AIDS, having contracted HIV during a sexual assault in jail.[3]

Current leadership[edit]

Lovisa Stannow, an experienced human rights advocate and former journalist, joined JDI’s Board of Directors in 2002 and became its Executive Director in 2005. David Kaiser, a writer, joined JDI’s Board of Directors in 2003 and has served as its Chair since 2007.


Just Detention International (JDI) is a health and human rights organization that seeks to end sexual abuse in all forms form of detention. JDI has three core goals for its work: to hold government officials accountable for prisoner rape; to promote public attitudes that value the health and safety of inmates; and to ensure that survivors of sexual abuse behind bars get the help they need.

Notable successes[edit]

Farmer v. Brennan, 1994[edit]

JDI submitted an amicus brief for the groundbreaking Supreme Court case on prisoner rape, Farmer v. Brennan[4][5] In Farmer v. Brennan,[6] for the first time, the court recognized that prisoner rape can amount to cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.[7]

ACLU v. Reno, 1997[edit]

After launching its website, JDI litigated to protect its content. In April 1996, Donaldson testified on JDI’s behalf in the case ACLU v. Reno, which challenged the constitutionality of the Communications Decency Act (CDA).[8] The act, which sought to create standards for “decency” for content posted on the Internet, was opposed by JDI because it would have restricted access to the explicit accounts of rape posted on the organization’s website.[9] The Supreme Court declared the CDA unconstitutional in June 1997.

Prison Rape Elimination Act, 2003[edit]

JDI helped draft and was instrumental in securing passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 (PREA), the nation’s first federal civil law addressing sexual violence in detention.[10][11][12] JDI worked closely with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle,[13] as well as a broad coalition of non-governmental organizations and survivors of sexual abuse behind bars, to secure the unanimous passage of PREA.[14] Since that time, JDI has played a key role in PREA’s implementation at the federal, state, and local levels.[15]

Inmate peer education[edit]

In 2010, JDI launched the nation’s first-ever inmate peer education program focused on preventing prisoner rape, at a large men’s prison in California, California Correctional Institution.[16] In 2011, the organization launched a second PREA peer education program in a California women’s prison, California Institution for Women. These peer education programs have resulted in a decrease in sexual harassment by staff and other inmates, and in a notable positive shift in staff attitudes toward reports of sexual abuse.[17]

Transforming public attitudes[edit]

Public attitudes that support contempt for inmates constitute a key barrier to ending sexual abuse in detention. Pop-culture representations of prisoner rape as a joke or as an inevitable fact of prison life are deeply ingrained in the American public consciousness.[18] JDI works to transform such attitudes by conducting extensive media outreach and public education, highlighting the real stories of survivors of sexual abuse behind bars. Through first-hand survivor accounts, JDI exposes the devastating impact of prisoner rape on survivors’ lives[19] and on the preventability of such abuse through strong corrections leadership and sensible policies. JDI’s media advocacy has resulted in a number of high-profile articles and editorials. In particular, in 2009-2011, JDI published a series of articles in The New York Review of Books, written by JDI’s Executive Director, Lovisa Stannow, and its Board Chair, David Kaiser.[20]

Nationwide resource guide[edit]

JDI receives hundreds of letters from prisoner rape survivors each year, and provides a personal response to each one. Survivors who contact JDI are often desperate for help.[21][22] In response to their needs, JDI developed its Resource Guide for Survivors of Sexual Abuse Behind Bars. The Resource Guide is a unique state-by-state guide to community-based rape crisis centers, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) service providers, legal help, and other resources for survivors and their loved ones.

Paths to recovery[edit]

Many incarcerated survivors avoid reporting sexual assault due to legitimate fears that they will face retaliation, ridicule, or further abuse if they do speak out. However, in order to access correctional medical and mental health services, prisoners must first report the abuse to staff. With no way to seek confidential services, most survivors suffer in silence.[23] In response, JDI developed Paths to Recovery, a program that brings community rape crisis counselors into prisons to provide confidential counseling to incarcerated survivors. The Paths to Recovery program has been implemented at two California prisons and is expanding to other prisons around the country.

Sexual Assault Response Teams (SARTs)[edit]

Sexual assault response teams (SARTs), multi-disciplinary teams made up of rape crisis counselors, forensic examiners, law enforcement officials, and prosecutors, have long been recognized as the best practice for responding to sexual assault survivors in the community.[24][25] When survivors are able to talk with a rape crisis counselor as they undergo forensic exams and law enforcement interviews, they are more likely to participate in prosecutions and get the help they need to heal.[26] JDI works with corrections agencies to bring the SART model into the prison context, providing incarcerated survivors of sexual abuse with the same quality of care that is available in the community.

Survivor council[edit]

Prisoner rape survivors have always played a leading role in JDI’s work, including by serving on the organization’s Board of Directors. In 2008, JDI expanded the role of survivors by creating its Survivor Council, an advisory board made up of currently and formerly incarcerated survivors of sexual abuse in detention. Survivor Council members provide input on JDI’s programs and policy advocacy, engage in media work, and provide testimony before Congressional leaders and other policymakers.

Core beliefs[edit]

JDI’s work is based on the belief that sexual abuse in detention, whether committed by corrections staff or by other inmates with the acquiescence of staff, is a human rights violation and, in many cases, a form of torture.[27][28] When the government removes someone’s freedom, it takes on the absolute responsibility to protect that person’s safety. No matter what crime someone may have committed, rape is not part of the penalty. JDI deliberately positions itself as a “helpful advocate,” offering assistance to corrections officials who are working for reform, while remaining outspoken in its belief that no one, no matter what, ever deserves to be sexually abused.

Prisoner rape and the spread of HIV[edit]

JDI works to address the devastating link between sexual abuse behind bars and the spread of HIV inside prisons[29] and in the community – a link that has been largely ignored by public health officials. Sexual abuse in detention fuels the global AIDS pandemic, especially in countries where legislation and policies that discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people already are hurting HIV prevention efforts. JDI works to implement policies that protect the health, safety, and dignity of all detainees.

International programs[edit]

JDI has applied lessons learned from its work in the U.S. to the fight to end prisoner rape internationally. The organization launched its South Africa program in 2005, and has since provided training to the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) and the Judicial Inspectorate of Correctional Services (JICS) on sexual abuse prevention, focusing on the link between prisoner rape and the spread of HIV. JDI has worked with local partners and the DCS to finalize a robust policy framework for South Africa’s prisons that explicitly highlights the risk of HIV transmission due to sexual violence and includes measures to reduce such risks.

In addition, JDI has worked with South African legislators – including members of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Correctional Services, which is responsible for providing oversight to the DCS – and successfully advocated for measures from the policy framework to be codified into law. JDI has also mobilized local community-based organizations in South Africa to advocate on behalf of inmates and their right to be free from sexual abuse.

In addition to its South Africa program, JDI is conducting exploratory work in Botswana, Guyana, India, Jamaica, Mexico, the Philippines, and the United Kingdom.

Legacy and honors[edit]

Just Detention International has established the Cahill Human Rights Fellowship, a ten-week paid fellowship offering an opportunity for a recent graduate and/or advocate to work with JDI during the summer months. The fellowship was established in honor of Tom Cahill, former President of JDI (1998-2006).

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ Just Detention International, "Just Detention International: A Brief History." Accessed December 2, 2011.
  2. ^ American Civil Liberties Union, "Stephen Donaldson, executive director, Stop Prisoner Rape." Last modified March 20, 1996. Accessed December 2, 2011.
  3. ^ Stop Prisoner Rape, "Stephen Donaldson, 49 - Led Reform Movement Against Jailhouse Rape." Last modified July 19, 1996. Accessed December 2, 2011.
  4. ^ Just Detention International, "SPR files Brief in Farmer v. Brennan." Archived 2010-11-25 at the Wayback Machine. Last modified January 11, 1994. Accessed December 2, 2011.
  5. ^ Just Detention International, "Hailing Supreme Court Decision." Archived 2010-11-25 at the Wayback Machine. Last modified June 07, 1994. Accessed December 2, 2011.
  6. ^ "Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825 (1994)". Findlaw.com. Retrieved 2014-08-12. 
  7. ^ Id
  8. ^ American Civil Liberties Union, "Affidavit of Stephen Donaldson in ACLU v. Reno." Last modified March 26, 1996. Accessed December 2, 2011.
  9. ^ Id
  10. ^ Kaiser, David, and Lovisa Stannow. "The Way to Stop Prison Rape." The New York Review of Books, March 25, 2010. (accessed December 5, 2011).
  11. ^ "National Prison Rape Elimination Commission Report." Accessed December 5, 2011.
  12. ^ Just Detention International, "The Prison Rape Elimination Act. Archived 2010-11-01 at the Wayback Machine." Accessed December 5, 2011.
  13. ^ The Prison Rape Reduction Act of 2002: Hearing on S. 2619 Before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, 107th Cong. (2002) (statement of the Honorable Frank R. Wolf ).
  14. ^ "Perfecting Our Union: Human Rights Success Stories from Across the United States." The Human Rights Fund. (2010): 46-52. (accessed December 2, 2011).
  15. ^ Just Detention International, "State and Local Corrections Reform." Last modified 2011. Accessed December 2, 2011.
  16. ^ "Inmate Peer Educators Fight Sexual Abuse." Action Update , October 01, 2010. (accessed December 5, 2011).
  17. ^ Stannow, Lovisa. Just Detention International, "Peer Education Program Turns Inmates into Advocates." Last modified October 07, 2011. Accessed December 5, 2011.
  18. ^ Lehrer, Eli. "No Joke: Prison rape is finally taken seriously." National Review Online, June 20, 2002. June 20, 2002, (accessed December 2, 2011).
  19. ^ Just Detention International, "Survivor Testimony." Accessed December 2, 2011.
  20. ^ David Kaiser and Lovisa Stannow, The New York Review of Books, The Rape of American Prisoners, 2011, (last visited Dec. 2, 2011; full series)
  21. ^ Herman, Judith. Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. Basic Books, 1997.
  22. ^ Just Detention International, "Mental Health Consequences of Sexual Violence in Detention." Accessed December 5, 2011.
  23. ^ Id
  24. ^ U.S. Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women, A National Protocol for Sexual Assault Medical Forensic Examinations, 2004, available at http://samfe.dna.gov/ (last visited Dec. 2, 2011)
  25. ^ The Advocates for Human Rights, "Sexual Assault Response Teams." Last modified February 10, 2009. Accessed December 5, 2011.
  26. ^ Campbell, Rebecca. "Rape Survivor's Experiences with the Legal and Medical Systems: Do Rape Victim Advocates Make a Difference?." Violence Against Women. 12. (2006).
  27. ^ Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (“Convention Against Torture”), G.A. Res.39/46, 39 U.N. GAOR, 39th Sess., Supp. No. 51, at 197, U.N. Doc. A/39/51 (1984) (entered into force June 26, 1987 and ratified by the U.S. Oct. 14, 1994).
  28. ^ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, adopted Dec. 16, 1966, 999 U.N.T.S. 171 (entered into force March 23, 1976 and ratified by the U.S. June 8, 1992).
  29. ^ "Sexual Abuse in Detention is a Public Health Issue" (PDF). Just Detention International. February 2009. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2013-10-29. Retrieved 2014-08-12.