Three years ago, a woman I’ll call “Mary” was stopped by a policeman for what initially appeared to be a run-of-the-mill moving violation. What followed was anything but routine, though.
“Mary” descended into a kind of hell that is all-too-familiar for the most vulnerable among us.
Mary’s descent started when the policeman discovered that she was in the country illegally. This, along with a ten-year-old warrant for bouncing a $230 check, caused her to be remanded into the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
Now, stick with me here. We Christians can disagree about our immigration laws and how they should be applied, but we should be outraged at what happened next to Mary.
ICE sent Mary, a Canadian citizen and the mother of four underage American citizens, to a facility in Willacy, Florida. There she was raped by a male guard. When Mary complained to a female guard, the guard replied “nobody’s going to believe you” and said that complaining would only make matters worse.
“Mary’s” story was not an isolated incident: in the episode of PBS’ Frontline that told her story, a former guard at Willacy called sexual abuse of inmates and cover-ups of the assaults there “pervasive.”
And that’s not just at Willacy. The Department of Justice estimates that “over 216,000 people are sexually abused in its prisons, jails, and juvenile detention facilities every year.”
This estimate does not include facilities run by the Department of Homeland Security, which includes ICE. Considering the vulnerability of those being held and the fact that immigration detention is “the fastest-growing system of incarceration in the United States,” you have the ingredients of the kind of systematic abuse that makes a mockery out of our claim to be a civilized, never mind Christian, society.
Strong words, I know. But as Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
Chuck Colson understood this, which is why he and Pat Nolan at Justice Fellowship worked alongside other groups to ensure the passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003. Unfortunately, its applicability to immigration detention centers remains somewhat unclear.
While the White House has ordered Homeland Security to promulgate its own rape prevention standards, those standards will not be implemented at immigration detention facilities until the spring of 2013 at best. Thus, predators can continue to prey on “the most vulnerable of populations” with relative impunity for another nine months at least.
In other words, we’re still uncivilized.
As Christians, we must not remain silent in the face of this evil, this assault on human dignity and common decency. The same can be said about other aspects of our justice system, which will be my subject in upcoming broadcasts.
Prison Fellowship exists because Chuck Colson took not only Dostoyevsky’s but our Lord’s words to heart: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
Chuck Colson may be gone, but Prison Fellowship’s vital heart beats as strongly as ever. To learn more about the work of Prison Fellowship and Justice Fellowship, visit prisonfellowship.org.