Volunteers send hope to victims of sexual abuse behind bars

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This post is part of KPCC's "Season's Givings" series, chronicling volunteer experiences  and opportunities during the holiday season. View a full listing of charitable organizations seeking help this season and let us know your holiday volunteer story!

On a recent Saturday, the Just Detention International offices were a cheery place. JDI is an L.A. nonprofit dedicated to ending sexual abuse in prisons. Every year, the group addresses holiday cards to inmates who’ve suffered sexual abuse. As volunteers greeted one another with hugs, Hettie Smith noticed the sharp contrast the atmosphere behind prison walls right about now.

“Well, the holidays are the worst time,” Smith said.

This is the first Christmas in 30 years Smith won’t spend locked up at the California Institution for Women in Corona. She says that was an especially depressing place in December.

“The suicide rate is very, very high,” she said. “The depression rate is very, very high.”

Imprisoned for murder, Smith was a model inmate. The state Parole Board freed her two-and-a-half weeks ago.

“I’m very happy,” Smith said. “And truly, the little teeny things like actually being able to go into another room and go to the bathroom is exciting.”

During her time in prison, Smith said she and many others endured sexual abuse at the hands of correctional staff or fellow inmates.  

“We were helpless,” she said, especially imates serving life sentences. “Because they felt like we didn’t have anybody to turn to. We had no advocates.”

When Just Detention International started working inside the prisons, Smith said she finally felt as if someone was looking out for her.

“And now that I’m out,” she said, “this is the first thing I wanted to do.”

Smith sat with other volunteers, transferring 140-character messages sent in from all over the world. Volunteers copy these words of hope into cards destined for inmates who’ve experienced sexual abuse.

Smith’s favorite?

“I don’t know if you’re strong now, but you will be. Wishing you well.”

Bruce Berriman, another JDI volunteer, also picked a favorite card with a quotation from poet Emily Dickinson:

“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches on the soul, and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.”

Berriman, an astronomer at Caltech, said it’s hard for him to picture the lives of people on the receiving end of these messages.

“I find it impossible to imagine how they deal with it. It’s something that goes on that does not get a lot of publicity, that’s truly appalling,” he said. “So I was happy to help out as best I could.”

The card campaign continues through the end of the year. Just Detention International hopes to send 10,000 cards in all.

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