Serving the Incarcerated Individual

Shows like Orange is the New Black, Oz, and Prison Break have communities talking about people’s experiences of being incarcerated.  At some point, the topic of sexual violence comes up, whether it is a joke about how to pick up soap in the shower or protective pairing (when an inmate of higher status offers protection to a less powerful inmate in exchange for goods or services, often nonconsensual sex).

What is available to support people who are incarcerated*?

The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which was passed in 2003 with unanimous support from both parties in Congress.  (From the Executive Summary ).

“The goal of this rule-making is to prevent, detect, and respond to sexual abuse in confinement facilities… it has been at times dismissed by some as an inevitable—or even deserved—consequence of criminality.  Prison rape can have severe consequences for victims, for the security of correctional facilities, and for the safety and well-being of the communities to which nearly all incarcerated persons will eventually return.”

As Just Detention International proclaims, rape is not part of the penalty.  Everyone deserves to be safe, regardless of their status.  Those who may be struggling with mental illness, survivors of previous sexual abuse, or those who are LGBTQ identified are more vulnerable to violence while incarcerated.

How do people who experience sexual violence access services in Virginia?

If someone is housed at a Virginia Department of Corrections facility, they have the option of reporting any incident to any employee verbally or in writing through a grievance, dialing #55, or writing to the PREA post office box (PO Box 17115, Richmond, VA 23226).

When a person dials #55 they can leave a confidential voicemail for the PREA department or speak to an Action Alliance advocate.  We have protocols in place should someone need immediate in person assistance, for situations such as hospital accompaniment after an assault.  Advocates provide emotional support, information, resources, and referrals.
For local and regional jails in Virginia, many local sexual assault crisis centers have similar arrangements.

What impact do these services have?

There are some unique challenges to providing services to people who are incarcerated.  Their backgrounds, needs, and concerns can be different from those out in the community. Often folks are looking for support from anyone outside of or beyond the systems they engage in on a daily basis. Fear of retaliation from staff or other inmates may prevent someone from disclosing. The stress and conditions of incarceration are traumatizing and may trigger survivors. Folks who have used the PREA hotline or written us have said, “Thank you for making me feel less alone.” and “This is the first time I told someone about what happened when I was locked up twenty years ago.”  Another person specifically called back the PREA hotline to let Action Alliance staff know that “they (the PREA investigator) took my report seriously. I have been moved to a different unit and things are better. Thank you.”


Want to learn more about PREA in Virginia? Attend our 2nd Annual PREA summit

Beyond Compliance: Building Trauma-Informed Partnerships


*Note: As part of an anti-oppression framework, it is important to acknowledge the shift in language, moving away from terms that dehumanize individuals.  From The Marshall Project.  -Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative puts it this way in his book, Just Mercy: “We’ve institutionalized policies that reduce people to their worst acts and permanently label them ‘criminal,’ ‘murderer,’ ‘rapist,’ ‘thief,’ ‘drug dealer,’ ‘sex offender,’ ‘felon’ — identities they cannot change regardless of the circumstances of their crimes or any improvements they might make in their lives.”


Reed Bohn is the Senior Hotline Crisis Services Specialist: Training at the Action Alliance.  He has worked and volunteered for HIV prevention, LGBTQ+ and anti-violence agencies. 


Joining the Action Alliance adds your voice to making change in Virginia. Start your membership today or call.

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Black Lives Matter: Racial Justice and Trauma-Informed Advocacy

Gynnya McMillen was 16 years old when she died in her sleep while in custody at a juvenile detention center last month in Kentucky.

This was the first night she had ever spent in detention. She had been arrested on a misdemeanor assault charge on a family member. Guards used a martial arts-style restraint on Gynnya when she refused to remove her sweatshirt as part of the facility’s search and booking procedure; she was found dead in her cell 24 hours later.

The tragic death of Gynnya McMillen raises critical questions about how she was treated in the detention facility and what exactly caused her death. Her story also raises broader questions about the extreme and overly punitive ways in which we approach children and teens of color whom we deem “non-compliant”.

The U.S. detains and incarcerates girls of color at staggering rates. African-American girls constitute 14% of the general population nationally, yet make up an astounding 33% of girls detained and committed.1 Native American girls are also disproportionately involved in the juvenile justice system: they are 1 percent of the general youth population but 3.5 percent of detained and committed girls.2

The vast majority of detained and incarcerated girls are trauma survivors. According to a study conducted by the Human Rights Project for Girls, the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, and the Ms. Foundation for Women, more than 80% of the girls in some states’ juvenile detention centers have been sexually or physically abused prior to incarceration.

Challenging behaviors exhibited by children and teens are frequently rooted in trauma and abuse. Yet instead of being viewed and treated as survivors of trauma, girls of color who exhibit trauma reactions are often suspended or expelled from school or referred to law enforcement.

Educational and legal systems fail to address the root cause of problematic behavior, which in turn exacerbates feelings of isolation and disconnection. In the face of being sanctioned, rather than supported, young survivors’ trauma reactions worsen. Sanctions grow harsher for worsening behavior, and so on.

Studies on racial bias have shown that white people feel less empathy for black people experiencing pain than they do for white people experiencing pain. The same bias has been reflected in white children as young as seven. The toxic combination of individual and systemic racial bias, along with the criminalization of trauma responses results in a terrible, unnecessary cycle of suffering and imprisonment.

At the Action Alliance, we believe trauma-informed work must be done from a racial justice lens. That means, in part, taking into account the impact of racism on individuals and communities. Think for example: how might these 5 tenets of a trauma-informed response operate differently when we consider them from a racial justice lens?
• Safety
• Trustworthiness
• Choice
• Collaboration
• Empowerment

Likewise, how might we rethink and respond to behaviors typically labeled as “failure to comply”, “defiant”, or “combative” when we look at them from a trauma-informed lens? Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, Washington is an excellent example of the stunning changes that happen when struggling teens are approached from a trauma-informed lens.

At the detention center on the morning of January 11, Gynnya did not respond to a verbal offer of breakfast at 6:30am, nor for snack 2 hours later. She did not move when guards said her family members were on the phone waiting to talk to her. Each one of these instances should have been cause for alarm, a cue to check on her at a facility where policy dictates that juveniles in isolation be checked every 15 minutes. Even after she was eventually found unresponsive, guards waited 11 minutes to perform CPR on her.

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Gynnya McMillen is remembered as a “quiet, beautiful person” by one of her former counselors at Home of the Innocents, one of Kentucky’s largest emergency placement centers for children who have been removed from their homes because of abuse, abandonment or neglect.

Gynnya should have been cared for well before she was found alone in a cell, unresponsive. Like so many other girls of color presently living in detention, Gynnya should have been cared for–by any number of educational, social, or other systems ostensibly created to help children stay safe and achieve their potential–before she ever entered a detention facility.

Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced, and Underprotected, a report by the African American Policy Forum, offers comprehensive recommendations for lifting up the experiences of girls of color and turning back the tide of overly punitive sanctions in favor of more restorative ones.

As allies and advocates, we have the power to lift up the experiences of girls of color and center them in our work. We can integrate what we know about trauma-informed approaches into our direct advocacy work in schools and detention facilities, as well as our policy work at local, state, and national levels. We can and must risk the discomfort of noticing and talking about systemic racism while working to undermine it. We can and must show up for racial justice and for kids who struggle every day with unrecognized trauma. We can and must show up for kids like Gynnya.


Kate McCord is the Communications Director for the Action Alliance. Kate’s work as a white ally to racial justice began in 2004 and has included serving for 3 years on Virginia Organizing’s statewide racial profiling campaign, serving on the Action Alliance’s Racial Justice Task Force, and raising her amazing kids to be actively anti-racist.

For more information about conducting trauma-informed advocacy through a racial justice lens, register here for our February 16 webinar, “Racial Justice as Trauma-Informed Advocacy”.


1 As referenced in “The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story“: Melissa Sickmund, Anthony (T.J.) Sladky, Wei Kang & Charles Puzzanchera, US Dep’t of Justice, Nat’l Ctr. for Juv. Justice, Easy Access to the Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement: 1997-2013, http:// (last visited May 24, 2015); Annie E. Casey Found., KIDS COUNT Data Center, Child Population by Race and Age Group (2013),,66,67,68,69,70,71,12|/17077,17078 (last updated Feb. 2015)

2  As referenced in “The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story”: Sickmund, supra note 8; Annie E. Casey Found., KIDS COUNT Data Center, Child Population by Race and Age Group (2013), available at loc=1&loct=1#detailed/1/any/false/36/13,66,67,68,69,70,71,12|/17077,17078 (last updated Feb.2015).



Joining the Action Alliance adds your voice to making change in Virginia. Start your membership today or call804.377.0335.

To inquire about submissions for blog, please check the submissions page for requirements or email