Pieper Lewis’ harrowing experience as a sex trafficking victim and her entrance into the criminal legal system underscore the ripple effects of sexual violence on Black girls and young women.
This week, the 18-year-old is facing up to a year in jail after pleading guilty earlier this month to escaping custody. She also faces additional time in prison for violating probation.
The Iowa teenager’s case received national attention last year when a judge ruled that she had to pay her rapist’s family $150,000 in restitution. But in November, less than two months into her sentence, the teen ran away from a Des Moines women’s halfway house.
But Pieper’s case isn’t an anomaly for Black women and girls, advocates say.
Nearly half of American Black women have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime, studies show. And nearly 70% of Black girls say they have been touched inappropriately by someone in school. Yet, Black girls and women are more than likely than white women and girls to be criminalized for defending themselves during sexual violence.
“I think what makes Black women and girls’ pathway as unique is that the ways in which we’re unprotected and undefended,” said Sydney McKinney, executive director of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute.
Pieper was facing life in prison without the possibility of parole for killing 37-year-old Zachary Brooks in June 2020. A year later, she pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and willful injury charges for the fatal stabbing.
Last September, a judge ordered her to serve five years of probation in Fresh Start Women’s Residential Facility instead of up to 20 years in prison. He acknowledged her difficult childhood but warned her that this would be her second chance.
Prior to sentencing, Pieper read a statement to the judge where she expressed her concerns of the treatment she received while in the juvenile detention center and poetically proclaimed, “my spirit has been burned, but still glows through the flames. … Hear me roar, see me glow, and watch me grow. I am a survivor,” the Associated Press reported.
Pieper had been scheduled to appear Thursday in the Polk County Criminal Courthouse to be sentenced for escaping custody, where she faces up to a year in jail and a $2,560 fine, and to determine whether her probation would be revoked for fleeing. Her attorneys filed a motion requesting to postpone the sentencing hearing for 30 days in order for her to have an updated psychiatric evaluation. Prosecutors did not object to the request. The probation hearing has also been postponed to a later date.
Research shows that one of the leading contributing factors of girls and women, especially Black girls and women, entering the criminal legal system is sexual violence. Incarceration statistics provided by the federal government that think tanks lean on for research are often outdated and don’t thoroughly break down convictions by gender, ethnicity, and race to get a full picture of those who are incarcerated.
Yet, Black girls represent 33.2% of those incarcerated, according to a collaborative report released by Georgetown University Law Center’s Center on Poverty and Inequality. The Vera Institute of Justice found that 86% of women in jail experienced sexual violence in their lifetime and are frequently revictimized through incarceration procedures such as supervision by male guards during showers. And of the 213 children under the age of 18 who were arrested for prostitution in 2019, 50.7% were Black, according to the FBI’s most recent Crime in the U.S. report.
“I think because of our history in this country, because of slavery,” people don’t take Black women and girls’ experiences seriously, McKinney said. We aren’t seen as victims, she said, or if something happens to us, people don’t see the harm they’ve caused that’s impacted Black women and girls.
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network found that while a girl’s adverse childhood experiences are connected to their entry into the criminal legal system, law enforcement officials fail to address underlying issues to determine if an arrest was even warranted. Meanwhile, their abuser evades prosecution.
“Traffickers target Black women and girls because they expect that if they do get caught, they’ll get a lesser sentence than if they were caught exploiting a white woman or another woman of color,” McKinney said. “It’s really a frustrating, disturbing understanding that Black women and girls’ lives are not valued in this country, and traffickers are targeting us because of that.”
There are very few states that offer immunity for individuals accused of a crime while engaging in sex trafficking activities that fall under the legal guise of prostitution.
‘These systems were not built to help us’
Access to adequate services while incarcerated — especially for girls like Pieper who have experienced trauma and are prone to develop mental health problems — is extremely limited and often inadequate, The National Child Traumatic Stress Network said in the collaborative report.
Nola Brantley says that sex trafficking survivors should not be incarcerated because they don’t get the treatment they need by qualified therapists and social workers.
Brantley, who is a sex trafficking survivor, says she sees herself in Pieper and her story is unfortunately like a majority of Black survivors she has met through her advocacy work. Since 2014, Brantley has conducted two-day training sessions for nearly 500,000 individuals and professionals on how to aid sex trafficking survivors. Her training courses largely focus on LGBTQ, Black, Native American, and immigrant youth.
“These systems, many of them, were not built to help us, and although there are people who may work in them today that want to help us, the system itself was not built to help Black people,” Brantley said, referring to treatment methods that are usually provided by white people who may be unaware of their connection to structural racism and may not make fruitful connections with Black people in need.
Prior to the June 2020 killing, Pieper says she ran away from her mother’s house three times because of emotional and mental abuse. Her last escape in January 2020 turned into the beginning of months of child labor, sexual exploitation, and drug and alcohol abuse, according to her account in court documents. Pieper says she was passed around by three different men, including Brooks, who repeatedly raped and exposed her to marijuana and alcohol.
Neither of the other men has been charged with anything in connection to Pieper’s case, a spokesman for the Polk County Attorney told Capital B in an email. But they were grand jury witnesses in her case, court documents show. “The overall case remains under investigation,” the spokesman said.
“These are girls — it is not disputed about the harm that they experienced — facing extreme sentences when we know that they are survivors,” McKinney said. “We don’t see Black women as victims, we don’t think about or feel obligated to care for or support their feelings as a system, and our courts reflect that in the sentencing.”
If Pieper’s probation is revoked for removing her ankle monitoring bracelet and escaping the halfway house, she may face either a minimum of a $1,375 fine and a 15% surcharge, or a maximum of 10 years in prison and a $13,660 fine and a 15% surcharge, for each charge.
With what Pieper says she went through before the fatal stabbing, it doesn’t surprise Brantley that the teen left the halfway house shortly after her arrival.
“I would just wonder what treatment she was receiving at the halfway house and not what they’re saying she received; what her perception of that treatment was,” Brantley said. “You know how many therapists I train who … don’t understand complex trauma?”
Generational trauma passed down from the horrors of slavery has dire consequences for some Black families, and if a health care specialist doesn’t acknowledge that before treating Black patients, they’ve already failed, Brantley said.
Black girls and women who were raped by slave owners were seen as participating in “consenting prostitution,” Brantley said. The remnants of that belief, whether conscious or unconscious, still persist. Trauma often goes untreated, sometimes resulting in undiagnosed mental illness, and a vicious cycle continues.
This story has been updated.