Brock Turner & Prison Justice: When the Liberation We Seek is Beyond Words

By Lucy Basa, Victim Advocate at HOPE Works

This piece represent the personal opinions, beliefs, and ideas of the author, and not necessarily those of H.O.P.E. Works.

Over the course of the last couple weeks, the public exchange around Brock Turner’s rape of a woman near Stanford’s campus has coalesced into a deep and multifaceted conversation reinvigorating our country’s complex and often discordant opinions around the reality of sexual violence on college campuses and throughout all our communities. Although, as always, there is a strong contingent of people victim-blaming and excusing Turner’s actions (his father among them), there seems to be an even stronger following of people advocating for the experience of the survivor, and the healing, safety, and needs of survivors everywhere. It is between these two largely dichotomous public discussions that I find myself, somewhat mired, to a host of difficult questions.

As I sit at my office desk, my kitchen table, my steering wheel, my front stoop, I have a hard time putting into words the staggering mess of emotions I find myself sitting in around this case and so many others like it. As a white woman, a queer and femme person, a survivor, it is painful, complicated, and difficult work to make sense of events like these and the multiple planes of violence and oppression that come to demand our attention and careful understanding.

What does it mean to learn to hold multiple, coexisting truths? To hold knowledge of the earth-shattering pain of rape compounded by such resounding silence from lawyers, judges, much of the collective public? To simultaneously know that nearly all incarcerated women and queer people are lifetime survivors of multiple forms of interpersonal and systemic violence? To know that Black and brown people, undocumented people, queer and trans people, sex workers, poor people, nearly ALL people experiencing multiple intersections of marginalization are criminalized every day for simply existing, subsisting, doing what is needed to survive?

And so I am painfully, tearfully, resentfully reminded that Brock Turner’s pitiful three months isn’t the problem. As much as my survivor-self demands he be held accountable in the way our culture teaches us people should be held accountable, deep down I know that doesn’t actually solve the problem. Or any problem, really.

The thing of it is: the criminal justice system and the prison industrial complex replicates violence, oppression, and trauma faster than it will ever solve any of these problems. These systems were not made for the likes of Brock Turner, and even if he were to be put behind bars for longer than a couple months, the real justice we are seeking when we demand a longer sentence, a world free of this kind of violence, would not be brought about through his imprisonment.

To the judge’s ruling of “prison being too harmful for Turner,” I acknowledge truth. Prison is a devastating, traumatizing and re-traumatizing experience for all incarcerated people–especially for those previously victimized by any number of individual, cultural, or systemic agents. The problem is not with this ruling, necessarily, it is with the ruling in the greater context of how our criminal justice system operates. Why, for example, have we never heard this line of reasoning used for women who are sentenced to life for killing their abusive partners in self-defense? For young men of color sentenced for non-violent drug offenses? For homeless queer youth stealing necessities or doing sex work as a means of survival?

I do not have an answer to the problem of how to hold rapists accountable and prioritize survivor healing, all while transforming society and breaking generational cycles of violence.

But I do know that the prison system we advocate Turner be punished through is the same system that criminalizes and re-victimized survivors time and again, and I know that we will never transform a culture of sexual violence by relying on a system that penalizes survivors more often than perpetrators.

This conversation is a hard one. It requires us to think outside of what we have words for and ask difficult questions of ourselves and our communities. If we are invested in the futures of survivors everywhere, we have a lot of work ahead of us. We have to collectively vision into being what a world without violence, sexual or otherwise, would actually look like. We have to confront the reality that this might mean thinking bigger than prison sentences, bigger than punitive measures that evade true accountability and leave those with privilege largely impervious.

Survivors are wildly resilient, as complex as they are fierce; they show us every day how to move through impossible circumstances with nuance and grace. As we advocate for and educate around the rights and concerns of survivors, it is of the utmost importance that we take these cues and seek a kind of justice that isn’t just reactionary, but one that carries the possibility to truly transform, heal, and liberate.