When I arrived at Barnard, I knew that I would devote myself to legal work in the future. I wasn’t sure how I would do this — or even which type of law I would want to practice someday — but I knew that I had to participate in the movement for criminal justice reform.

Nearly four years later, I’ve had the opportunity to explore some of the ways that I could do this kind of work. Taking Sovereignty and Its Challenges with Professor Alexander Cooley showed me that policies shaping the law are subject to questioning. Being on the Columbia Mandarin Debate Association (CMDA) led me to understand that the systems of legal institutions are in need of examination and restructuring. The activist attitudes among my peers on campus taught me that reformation is a task more important than ever — a task I took on this summer with the help of Barnard Connect.

Zuyu Shen in library
Summarizing research findings at Milstein Library (photo: Veronica Wang ’23)

When I came across a research project on Barnard Connect dealing with past criminal justice reforms to end prison rapes in the U.S., I was immediately intrigued. The project was examining legislative solutions to the issue of prison reform and was led by Nicole Kaufman ’03, an alumna on the College’s virtual mentoring network and current associate professor of sociology at Ohio University. My summer-long collaboration with Kaufman offered me a chance to research congressional bills from the 1990s to 2010s that were dedicated to reducing or ending prison rape.

My work with Kaufman began by reviewing the legacy of prominent activists, such as Stephen Donaldson, who survived multiple rapes in prison and worked on prison rape reduction more than two decades before his death. As one of the first men to openly identify himself on mainstream media as a victim of prison rape, Donaldson promoted societal and legislative efforts on the issue. Stop Prisoner Rape, now called Just Detention International — the organization that he led from 1988 until he died from an AIDS-related illness in 1996 — was monumental at the time and was a guiding point for my research with Kaufman.

Research and Findings

Zuyu zoom call with Nicole Kaufman
One of my weekly meetings with Nicole Kaufman ’03

Later in the summer, I began to focus my research on the passage of 2003’s Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA).

As I examined the hearings conducted around the time that PREA was passed, I noticed that the proponents of this act emphasized the need to obtain accurate statistics on the rate of prison rape and the limited involvement of the United States Constitution in preventing it.

However, with the help of social scientists, religious groups, and human rights advocates over the years, it has become clear that legislators can no longer refute that the current law leaves many vulnerable to prison rape and that the problem demands institutional intervention.

I continued to search for more relevant legal documents at Columbia’s Arthur W. Diamond Law Library. With the help of the librarian, I learned to navigate websites like ProQuest Congressional and HeinOnline to locate legislative history and journal articles that could fill in my knowledge gaps.

Among all the findings at the library, what impressed me the most were the precursors of PREA — or the failed efforts to tackle prison rape before 2003. I learned that before men’s rape was publicized by activists like Donaldson, there were numerous cases about sexual violence against women in prison, but they did not lead to the passage of legislation like PREA. Relying on the new documents I gathered at the law library, I concluded that male-centered prison violence enabled the passage of PREA, much more than the violence directed at women, because there was greater unacceptability and perceived harm assumed when the rape victims were men. PREA, which mainly relied on male rape cases as evidence, echoed the political pursuit of proponent groups and was also politically salient for a Republican-dominated Congress in 2003.




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