Greetings from JDI’s New Executive Director, Linda McFarlane
Today is my first day as the Executive Director of Just Detention International — the world’s only organization that is dedicated exclusively to fighting prisoner rape. It’s the honor of a lifetime to be appointed to lead JDI. As a JDI staff member since 2005 — and Deputy Executive Director since 2008 — I’ve seen from up close how essential our work is in the fight to bring safety and human rights to people who are so often forgotten.
It was clear to me on my very first day at JDI that this organization was special. On my desk there was a stack of letters from incarcerated survivors of sexual abuse — just some of the more than 2,000 such letters we receive every year. One survivor wrote, “I have written to 50 places for help and you’re the only one who wrote back.”
This person’s experience, I would soon realize, is heartbreakingly common. Incarcerated people are profoundly isolated. And when they are brutalized — either directly by staff, or because staff have failed in their duty to protect them — they take a huge risk in writing letters to us, sharing their pain with strangers, with no guarantee that any of us will care. Survivors of sexual abuse in detention have as much right to compassion and justice as any other survivor, yet so many people choose to look away — but not JDI. Over the years, I’ve heard time and again from survivors that letters from JDI have been their lifeline.
JDI’s commitment to survivors is deep-rooted, practically embedded in our organizational DNA. We were founded by a prisoner rape survivor in 1980, and survivors have been at the forefront of our work ever since. Two of our movement’s biggest heroes — whose names you’ve likely come across if you’ve followed our 40th anniversary campaign — are Tom Cahill and Stephen “Donny” Donaldson. Both survivors, Tom and Donny were powerful early leaders of JDI, and I look to them for inspiration — literally, in fact. In my office hangs a photo of Donny in his navy uniform, as well as one of Tom’s beat-up old camper van, which was JDI’s first “headquarters.” Although Donny passed away before I had a chance to meet him, Tom served as an advisor on my first project at JDI in 2005, to launch confidential rape crisis counseling for people living inside California state prisons. To this day, Tom continues to serve on our Survivor Council and remains a committed human rights activist.
There are other movement heroes, too — most notably Lovisa Stannow, our fearless outgoing Executive Director and my mentor, and David Kaiser, our amazing former Board Chair, who passed away in July. Lovisa and David contributed to JDI in so many ways that it would be impossible to recount them all here. For me, though, what stands out is their insistence that prisoner rape can be stopped — a bold idea that flew in the face of what just about everyone else believed for many years, including advocates. Lovisa and David argued that this abuse happens because we allow it to happen, and that its prevalence is a stain on this country. As David once wrote, “If you want to look U.S. injustice in the eye, you have to acknowledge the horror playing out in our prisons.”
I’m deeply indebted to Lovisa and David, to Tom and Donny, and to many others for building JDI into the human rights powerhouse that it is today. I’m humbled to take the helm of an organization with an extraordinary team, and a powerful vision. Our reputation as the leader in fighting the crisis of prisoner rape is unquestioned. We have an impressive Board of Directors. Our Survivor Council members offer invaluable insights that shape all that we do. And our donors and other supporters have the courage to stand up for incarcerated people, who so many others prefer to ignore. We have a strategic plan that’s bold yet pragmatic, and a reputation for cutting-edge advocacy that continues to afford us unprecedented opportunities to build partnerships with advocates, corrections officials, and policymakers.
And yet it’s clear that we still have a great deal of work to do — especially given the profound uncertainty of the moment we are in right now. The pandemic, and the systemic, state-sanctioned racism that our nation is now reckoning with, affect prisoners acutely. Because of these challenges, I’m especially grateful to embark on my new role as JDI’s Executive Director at a time when the organization is stronger than ever.
“And yet it’s clear that we still have a great deal of work to do — especially given the profound uncertainty of the moment we are in right now. The pandemic, and the systemic, state-sanctioned racism that our nation is now reckoning with, affect prisoners acutely. Because of these challenges, I’m especially grateful to embark on my new role as JDI’s Executive Director at a time when the organization is stronger than ever.”
I plan to build on those strengths — while remaining firmly grounded in our unique mission to end prisoner rape. Specifically, here are three areas where I will focus our work:
– Continuing our innovative, cutting-edge policy advocacy and culture change programs. JDI is the national leader in ensuring that the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which we helped develop, is implemented fully and meaningfully in detention facilities nationwide. We will continue to work with policymakers and legislators to hold government officials accountable for ensuring the human rights of the people in their care. We will also continue our groundbreaking work inside prisons, jails, and youth detention facilities, establishing model programs to prevent and respond to sexual abuse, and to promote a culture of safety and dignity for all.
– Addressing systemic racism and violence against people of color. The crisis of state-sanctioned violence against people of color — and police brutality in particular — is inextricably tied to the crisis of prisoner rape. Recognizing this link, we will ramp up our work to address systemic racism in our criminal justice system, emphasizing how it contributes to sexual abuse of incarcerated people of color.
– Expanding our work with currently and formerly incarcerated survivors. The courage, leadership, and wisdom of survivors have always been central to JDI’s work. Yet far too many never receive the support they need to heal, and most return to their communities struggling with unimaginable trauma. JDI will commit to expanding our leadership and wellness programs inside facilities, creating opportunities for people to identify their own needs, get support in addressing them, and find resources to return successfully to life on the outside. We’ll make sure that our work is responsive to all survivors — including people with disabilities, people with mental illness, and LGBTQ people, who are so often overlooked or dismissed by prison staff and service providers.
There are undoubtedly other areas that will demand our attention in the coming years. Indeed, at JDI we pride ourselves on being nimble, on our ability to shift our strategies to meet the moment. One of the most important lessons I have learned from Lovisa’s exceptional leadership is this: at JDI, we reserve the right to decide for ourselves what is possible — no matter what challenges we face.
While it’s clear that we have a long road ahead, I am optimistic. Our movement has already accomplished so much, and we’re not going to stop now. I am honored and excited to work with all of you, as we decide what is possible in this next phase in our fight for human rights. No matter what the obstacles, we will not accept anything less than what our mission calls for: an end to sexual abuse in all forms of detention.