By Elizabeth Hawes / Truthout
This essay is a 2023 winner of the Keeley Schenwar Memorial Essay Prize.
Content warning: This essay contains descriptions of interpersonal and state-sanctioned sexual violence.
“The first time I was raped I was eleven.”
Crystal did not know her first rapist.
She was also raped several times by her uncle when she was fifteen.
“And when I was between 18 and 22. I was raped about ten times.”
Later, when she entered prison, sexual violence followed her.
“Being stripped here, in prison — even though I know the outcome will not be sexual — still feels the same as being raped because it is forced upon us…. My past rapes replay in my mind every time I’m stripped here.”
Upon arrival in prison, we are shown a PREA video.
The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) is a federal law that makes it illegal for anyone — staff, volunteers or people who are incarcerated — to sexually harass, intimidate or act sexually towards incarcerated people.
The assistant warden (or a caseworker) gives a PowerPoint on PREA to all new arrivals. There are signs posted in several languages by every phone in the hall and dayroom, and more signs above the dayroom drinking fountain telling us how to report any sexual wrong-doing; telling us that the complaint will be seriously investigated. What is not seriously investigated are the institutional policies that continually, methodically and routinely bring out painful past sexual trauma.
At the Shakopee women’s prison, we are continually stripped.
It’s not just Shakopee prison’s policy, it’s the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) policy.
I’ve talked with many people who have stated they are so used to being stripped that now it isn’t as uncomfortable as it once was. That is not the case with me. It makes me angry. I feel violated.
I know many people who do not want visits because they don’t want to be stripped.
Until the later part of 2022, it was standard policy for officers to strip us every time we had an in-person visit. This, despite the fact that these were controlled visits: A guard was in the room, we were on camera, we couldn’t have physical contact with those who came to see us (except for a brief hug and kiss on the cheek when they entered and left), we had to sit facing toward the direction of the guard desk, and we were not allowed to get up from our chairs.
Now, in 2023, we are patted down by a female officer before and after we enter the visiting room. The visiting protocol is the same but now, instead of being stripped, we go through a body scanner. I believe this is an attempt to lower the visiting strips.
But repeated strips still happen all the time.
For example, my coworker went off-grounds to the hospital in February 2023. As with any off-grounds appointment, she was stripped, changed into bright orange scrubs, handcuffed and shackled. When she returned to the facility, as protocol, she was restripped. There were two new female officers conducting this procedure. After the strip search was completed, my coworker dressed into her prison clothes. An intake officer asked one of the new officers about the strip. She asked if the officer had asked my coworker to wiggle her toes. “No. We didn’t ask her to do that,” the newer officer replied. The veteran officer made my coworker strip again.
Not: Have her take off her shoes and wiggle her toes.
Not: Next time, make sure you ask her to do that.
My coworker was completely restripped.
She was a training exercise, not a person.
The arrival process is just as bad. My friend Crystal came to prison on Thursday, December 15, 2022. Upon arrival, like everyone else, she was stripped and given a pair of orange prison scrubs to wear. She was then fingerprinted, had her photo taken, asked questions about gang involvement and her tattoos, and weighed. Even though she had already been stripped, she then was told to stand on the body scanner.
An officer scanned Crystal three times. They saw “masses” in her body scanner photos. They told her, “It looks like you swallowed something or inserted something.” Crystal told me, “I definitely did not have anything up there.”
She guessed she had a pelvic infection. These infections happened to her with frequency.
Two officers then brought Crystal to a dry cell in segregation (solitary confinement) where she was stripped again, even though she had been alone in the holding cell or with staff since she arrived. A few hours later, she was brought to medical for a pap smear. There, they confirmed what Crystal had told them. She had a pelvic inflammatory infection.
“The infections cause my uterus to be inflamed and puffy,” she told me. “If I have any infection in my body, my uterus becomes inflamed. It is uncomfortable, with bloating and severe pain.”
Crystal was given a shot of antibiotics and a prescription for a week’s worth of antibiotic pills.
She was taken back to solitary.
The next day she was scanned again by the same officer who did the first three scans. “Still looks the same,” the officer said.
Scanned again on Sunday. Scanned again on Monday.
“On Monday, staff finally took me out of the dry cell, but I was in the dry cell for five days and remained in segregation for 12days — until the 27th of December,” Crystal told me. “I was never offered a phone call, so over Christmas I was not able to call my family. No calls to my kids at Christmas. I had one hour out of the cell each day. I was taking Seroquel [an antipsychotic medication] to help me sleep. I asked for books, but no one brought me any.”
I asked her if she was stripped in the county jail before she came to prison. “I was stripped three times within 24 hours of my arrival in county,” she said. “The first 27 hours I was not in my own cell. New people kept arriving, and whenever I got a new cellmate I was restripped.”
This is when I asked Crystal about prior sexual trauma, prompting the response that opened this essay.
Crystal’s story is not uncommon.
We are continually told that DOC policies are in place for our safety. Yet the DOC’s policies overlook their own involvement in invoking trauma. Who reviews the consequences of the methodical stripping of incarcerated women? No one examines the fallout of state rape.
Rape is about power and control. Subjugation. Prison is too.
“Their involvement in the justice system leaves many incarcerated women vulnerable to re-victimization,” according to an ACLU report. 
PREA is a flimsy Band-Aid over a deep wound. Until the state confronts its strip policy toward people who are incarcerated, it will continue to be a nexus of sexual trauma.
- Enacted in 2003. ↑
- This involves two female guards wearing blue gloves watching as I take off my scrubs, bra, socks and underwear piece by piece and hand them to the guards conducting the strip. They go through the clothes by patting them down and shaking them. Once naked, I am asked to bend at the waist and run my finger through my hair. I am asked to show the area behind my ears, and to open my mouth and lift up my tongue. People with large breasts or a corpulent waist are asked to lift them to show their undersides. If we happen to be using a tampon, we have to take it out and hand it to them. I then have to lift up my hands and arms and show them the bottoms of my feet, and then squat and cough three times. ↑
- Prior to the pandemic I had an average of eight visits a month. From visits alone, I have been stripped over 992 times. ↑
- I was stripped after two of my visits in December 2022. I was body-scanned after my visits in January 2023. ↑
- When taken to the hospital, we are with a prison officer at all times. ↑
- The scanner moves like a slow conveyor belt, two feet to the left, passing under a metal-looking door frame, and then reverses direction, bringing us back to where we initially stood. ↑
- A “dry cell” means there is no working toilet in the room. When you have to use the toilet, you have to wait for two officers to escort you to a bathroom. Then they stand there as you do your business. ↑
- Georgetown and ACLU Comment: Proposed Rule, National Standards to Prevent, Detect, and Respond to Prison Rape (Docket ID: DOJ-OAG-2011-0002, 4/4/2011). ↑