pennsatucky
The third season of Netflix’s Orange is The New Black gave us a beautiful thing: the evolution of Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett from a delusional, violent, racist, homophobic, bible-thumping caricature to a complicated person who had a traumatic and neglectful upbringing. Pennsatucky, for all of her self-righteous bravado, is capable of humor, reflectiveness and change. Humanizing Pennsatucky also helped shine a light prison sexual assault’s grim reality.

Pennsatucky finally became Tiffany to us with the help of a little love and guidance from Boo, once one of her former nemeses. Tiffany’s tale of redemption was framed by the magic of that friendship, but it was also framed by the horror of rape. The disturbing truth is the devastation of sexual assault is just a given for Penn. She learned very young that it’s just something that happens to girls, especially if they get too “flirty.” Her story highlights the cyclical problems of rape, drugs, and abuse in many impoverished communities. It also deals with the reality of rampant guard-to-inmate sexual assault.

Both of Tiffany’s experiences with rape are not dissimilar. In both scenarios the culture surrounding the rape gives victims very little agency. In an odd twist, though, when Tiffany was raped in the “free” world, she had no allies; no one was truly interested in her well-being. In the prison world, however, she at least had Boo to tell her that this was not okay and that she didn’t deserve this. She had someone there to tell her she was worthy of dignity and self-respect. In many ways, she has finally found not just a friend, but a mother figure: someone to tell her the importance of brushing her teeth AND explain the harsh realities of the world to her with compassion and perspective.

However, like any mother, Boo is flawed and doesn’t have all the answers. Given the lack of power and voice they have as inmates, it at first makes sense to enact their own justice, but their plan ultimately fails. The events of Coates’ drugging and Tiffany’s (faked) seizure are unlinked to Tiffany’s rape in the guard’s mind. The plan is beneficial to Boo and Pennsatucky’s safety and gives them a sense of closure, but it in no way “rehabilitates” Coates. In fact, his experience with Tiffany was just a training ground for him to potentially sexually assault other vulnerable inmates. In an ominous scene Maritza Ramos, another petite inmate, is shown about to take over the driving job that allowed for Pennsatucky’s abuse. The cycle just continues, but speaking out probably wouldn’t have changed anything, either. In real world scenarios someone like Pennsatucky might be in for a world of hell if she tried to tell an authority about her rape.

Prisoners often have no real recourse when they are the victims of sexual assault. Under the eyes of the law all sex in a prison setting is nonconsensual, but that doesn’t inhibit the sexual activity that happens in prison. In fact, according to a lawsuit filed this past May by two prisoners in the Riker’s Island’s Rose M. Singer Center for women, guard-to-inmate sexual assault in prison is “endemic.”

Despite reports to a mental health clinician, a jail clinician, and city investigators, the women’s attorneys say nothing was really done and the prison continues to employ the guards involved in the serial sexual assaults, including the only one of eight named in the suit: Benny Santiago.

The behavior of Santiago and the other unnamed guards is described as “open and notorious,” and the prison environment outlined in the suit is one of abuse and fear. After one of the women, known as Jane Doe 2, was thought to have reported her rape Santiago incited other inmates to crowd around the victim’s cell to yell at her for “snitching.” According to the suit, he further retaliated against her by denying her access to food and showers.

Santiago is also accused of raping another woman, Jane Doe 1, up to four times a week out of sight of the security cameras. He tried to keep her quiet by threatening her family, and even went so far as to visit the home of her parents, and reported back to her what he saw there.

“This abuse is only possible because, in the face of repeated warnings, the City of New York has enabled a culture of complacency to perpetuate at Rikers Island and thereby consented to the abuse of women in its custody,” the lawsuit states.

The suit is said to be backed by DNA evidence, and this evidence may include a sheet and the fact that one woman was impregnated while in prison. Reports of the pregnancy made headlines in 2013, but unlike on OITNB where an officer believed to have impregnated a female inmate ends up incarcerated, nothing was done in this real life situation.

Attorney William Gibney, who is heading up the case, told The Gothamist, “there are so many control elements that guards can use at Rikers Island, and we saw a variety of them used against our defendants. The guards can send the women to disciplinary isolation, or spread word among other guards who can put pressure on the inmate to not speak. The guard can even tell other prisoners to attack the person. It’s an incredible control environment, and you really risk personal safety in reporting anything.”

The Department of Corrections has said that they can’t comment on this case, but released a statement saying the “DOC has a zero tolerance policy with regard to sexual abuse and assault, and there is no place at DOC for mistreatment of any inmate.”

The allegations at Riker’s are not an isolated case. Tutwiler, a women’s prison in Alabama, has been labeled the “worst” prison in America in terms of sexual assault after a number of allegations were uncovered several years ago. Like prisons all over the country, guards coerce inmates for sexual favors. These favors are often colored with sensation by items like drugs and money, but at Tutwiler something as simple as a Church’s chicken sandwich was used as a bargaining chip. One guard at Tutwiler even set up a former inmate, causing her to brought back to jail. He then promised her freedom if she would just “drop her pants.” Another woman at Tutwiler says she was sent to prison for failing to show a former guard, Winfred Eugene Vance Jr. nude photos during a drug test.

“He said ‘Who are you going to tell? I work for the state. I’m a court official and you’re nothing but a drug addict,’” inmate Creta Daniel said he told her after she refused to send him the photos. She’s currently seeking to appeal her case, but without direct evidence, stories like hers, stories like Pennsatucky’s, are just stories told by an inmate.