The Power of Compassion
As advocates, we have many tools at our disposal to support survivors of sexual abuse. Sometimes, the most effective one is compassion.
Every holiday season, I’m reminded of how a simple act of kindness can be a lifeline to survivors. Every year at JDI, we invite our supporters to write holiday messages to survivors of rape in prison, through our Words of Hope campaign. Last year, we received more than 10,000 messages – an amazing outpouring of compassion.
It is no exaggeration to say that these greetings transform the lives of the survivors who receive them. One person who can attest to the power of a few kind words is Dwight. An openly gay inmate serving time in a Texas prison, Dwight has been sexually abused repeatedly by other inmates. When he tried to report the abuse, staff ignored him or, worse, responded with homophobic slurs. The constant abuse and utter neglect shattered his sense of self-worth – but JDI supporters helped him pick up the pieces. “Because of extraordinary individuals like you, I will not forget that I am strong and loved – that no one can take away my dignity,” he wrote in a letter to JDI. “Thanks to you, I will stay strong, believe in hope, and understand that I am not to blame.”
Dwight is one of countless survivors who have told us that the holiday cards they received have been vital to their healing. Indeed, every January our office is flooded with survivor responses that burst with renewed optimism. Raymond, an inmate at a Virginia prison who was raped multiple times by his cellmate, credits the holiday messages with helping him cope during an especially difficult time. As he wrote, “To receive cards with compassion – from people you don't know and never met – truly makes someone that suffers from PTSD feel loved and cared for.”
Incarcerated survivors are not the only people for whom these cards have special meaning. Many people on the outside tell JDI that writing greetings to prisoners is a favorite holiday activity. Not surprisingly, some of the most enthusiastic participants in the campaign are themselves rape survivors. One JDI supporter, echoing the sentiments contained in many of the messages, wrote, “You are, as I am, a survivor, not a victim.”
Compassion alone won’t rebuild the lives of prisoner rape survivors. In order to heal from sexual assault – whether behind bars or in the community – survivors must be able to get quality crisis intervention and medical care. Nor is compassion a substitute for the national political commitment that is required to safeguard every person’s right to be free from this violence. Still, it’s important to keep in mind that so many survivors feel alone and forgotten – and that it’s easy for us to show them that they are not.