Do Sexually Victimized Female Prisoners Perceive Justice in Litigation Process and Outcomes?

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Abstract

Sexual victimization during incarceration has been declared cruel and unusual punishment. Although the Prison Rape Elimination Act mandated new standards, the problem persists. Class action litigation is an alternate strategy to ensure prisoners’ rights are protected. However, even when such litigation is successful, there is little known about the participants’ perceptions of whether justice was attained in the process (procedural) or outcomes (distributive). Neal v. MDOC (1998), a class action settled on behalf of 809 women sexually abused by staff during incarceration, is a landmark case with national implications. Understanding participant perceptions can enhance those implications. Using surveys mailed to participants residing in the community with valid addresses (n = 399), 156 women responded (39% response rate). Three scales measured procedural/distributive justice and a path analysis used explanatory variables as multivariate regressors on the scales to determine how individual and contextual factors affected perceptions. Perceptions of justice were positively associated with women’s motivations to ‘do the right thing’ and their feelings of empowerment. Perceptions of prison improvement were positively related to themes that the corrections department was punished; negatively associated with staff retaliation. Predictably, women who were currently unemployed and seeking employment had lower scores on the Financial Benefit Scale whereas those endorsing security from settlement funds rated it higher. Because of the intersections of race, class, gender, and legal status, incarcerated women are rarely heard or validated. This lawsuit provided an opportunity for both. Importantly, women less positive about justice wanted their individual perpetrators punished—an unattainable goal in this class action.

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