Instant (and free) karma for the holidays

12/18/2010 02:44 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's extremely heartening in this time of financial belt tightening to see more and more of my friends making charitable donations for the holidays in lieu of gifts. Whether it's supporting the important work of Doctors Without Borders, or buying a goat for an African village through Oxfam, these fantastic gestures take advantage of avenues set up by caring non profits whose work we really should support all year round. All we have to do is click a button and these organizations will turn our money into food, housing, medical supplies and other forms of aid to needy populations. But there is one population that is never included in all this good will; it is by its very nature difficult to reach, and extremely uncomfortable for most of us to talk about outside of tasteless jokes: inmates who have been raped behind bars.

Why should we care about criminals, you ask? It's because in addition to the horror of rape, these men and women are contending with indifference and shame at best, trauma, ridicule and continued abuse at worst. We don't hear about it very often, but it's a reality for a horrific number of prisoners: over 20 percent of inmates in men's prisons and as many as 25 percent in women's institutions (and these are conservative estimates since so many cases go unreported.) Did you know that right here in Los Angeles there is a human rights organization--Just Detention International -- devoted especially to these survivors of rape?

When you look at the circumstances, at the very institutionalization of rape in our prisons, it can really seem hopeless. The activists working with such isolated victims are truly pioneers. And using the ingenuity of the internet, they make it possible for any of us to reach out and send a message directly to one of these survivors. It takes 30 seconds, it's fast free and easy. But it will provide nothing less than a lifeline to someone who is suffering this holiday season, reminding them they are not alone.

I don't know anyone who doesn't consider themselves compassionate. So if you are, you will not turn away from this great way to make a difference for someone less fortunate. It will take less time than it just took you to read this piece!

JDI will send your card to someone like Beverly, who was sexually abused by staff in a state prison. Beverly wrote

"Here I was feeling like an island all by myself, and that I didn't have anyone to turn to who could possibly understand me. And then I received your envelope. Thank you so very, very much!"

Let's all join JDI in sending holiday cards to sexual abuse survivors in prisons and jails across the U.S.


Here's a January update from JDI Executive Director Lovisa Stannow:

Your words of encouragement and solidarity were sent directly to survivors who are still behind bars -- and who so often feel forgotten and alone.

One such survivor is Alvin. Alvin was just 18 years old when he was first raped by other inmates in a county jail. Last year, while serving time in a state prison for a nonviolent crime, he was raped again -- this time by his cellmate, who also brutally beat him. He wrote:

I received your letter on Christmas Eve, just as I was having horrible thoughts of cutting this earth trip short. The correctional officer said you got mail, and that snapped me back from the edge. As I read the paragraph, 'We received many messages from people who wanted to let you know that you are not forgotten,' my eyes got blurry, full of tears. So it was hard for me to see clearly. And now even as I write this letter there's a tear running down my cheek. I always thought nobody goes through what I go through...the holiday cards saved my life.

We also heard from Rafael, who was repeatedly sexually abused by corrections officers in a state prison. He wrote:

Here I was in my cell sitting on my bed on Christmas Eve, sad but hanging in there. My thoughts were on my mom who passed on in 2004, and thinking man, this is my 24th Christmas behind bars.

Then at about 4 pm the officer gave me some mail from JDI. I was surprised because I don't get much mail. Being incarcerated for so long, friends and family have forgotten me or passed on. When I read the holiday cards my heart skipped a beat and I started to cry. Yes, this 46-year old hard-core convict was crying. The kind words of encouragement, blessing, and letting me know that I'm not forgotten from total strangers from far away shattered my emotions.

Please let them all know that I love them all and will cherish their words in my heart. And yes, I will walk with my head up high and will share my story with no shame and will help others that find themselves in similar situations.

All of us at JDI are inspired by the compassion that so many of you shared with survivors this holiday season. While we know that there is still much work to be done, each day takes us one step closer to ensuring that our government protects the basic human rights of all people in its custody -- and to preventing any other person from enduring what Alvin and Rafael did, ever again.

Thank you for standing up for the safety and dignity of all people.

Lovisa Stannow

Executive Director