**content warning** sexual assault, mental illness, racism, classism
A couple of weeks ago as I was pointlessly tapping through Instagram stories, I came across a post someone shared that caught my attention. After diving in deeper, I realized that not only was this story important, but it also hit close to home.
Saraya Rees is a teenager from Myrtle Point which is a town in my home state, Oregon, who was arrested at the age of thirteen in July of 2019 and charged with attempted murder and assault. Now fifteen years old, Saraya is in the midst of serving an eleven-year sentence for a crime she did not commit.
Saraya’s parents called local health officials, which they were previously instructed to do in case of a mental health emergency. However, to Saraya’s parents’ surprise, the police were contacted instead of trained mental health advisors.
Saraya’s parents woke to their daughter pouring a small amount of gasoline on their carpet after improperly being taken off of her antidepressants and falling into a manic psychosis. This then led to the phone call that would result in Saraya being put further in harm’s way. Unfortunately, Saraya’s story is not unique, and the commonality demonstrates a flaw in our system that is putting individuals with mental risk at harm instead of keeping them safe. According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, “In 44 states, a jail or prison holds more mentally ill individuals than the largest remaining state psychiatric hospital.”
Not only did the system fail Saraya that night, but it continues to create an environment that doesn’t allow her to be safe and receive the care and mental health services that she needs. While Saraya was being held at a detention center and awaiting her trial she was experiencing sexual assault and was advised by her attorney to plead guilty so that she could leave the detention center faster and no longer be in that unsafe situation. Currently, Saraya is being held at Oak Creek Correctional Facility. Data released by the Department of Justice shows that 14.3% of the 42 girls that took a sexual abuse survey at this facility answered that they had been victimized which is more than double the national average of sexual abuse in youth correctional facilities ( 7.1%).
Saraya’s parole officer stated to the judge and courtroom that she would consider releasing Saraya from juvenile prison once she completed trauma work with her therapist. After this court date, Saraya returned to juvenile prison with the expectation that she would be able to meet with a therapist once a week. It has recently been noted by Saraya’s family that she has not been visited by a therapist for three weeks, which contradicts what was said at her last court date. And according to Mental Health America, “half of all Americans in prison or jail have a mental illness.”
Saraya Rees is a biracial individual and as a member of the Black community, her story is just another example of how money, power, and White privilege works against individuals such as Saraya. Coos County District Attorney Paul Frasier told a local news outlet that “she was still aware of what was wrong and right that night” and has stated that he will never reopen the case. Yet, Frasier’s seventeen-year-old son raped a thirteen-year-old girl and his only consequence was three-year probation and on the contingency that he successfully finished his probation, he was not required to register as a sex-offender. Under Oregon law, Sexual Abuse in the First Degree under Measure 11 carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 75 months (six years, three months) in prison with no sentence reduction eligibility. Frasier doesn’t expect his seventeen-year-old son to know “what was wrong and right,” but expects a thirteen-year-old who was in a psychosis and did not harm anybody that night to know “what was wrong and right.” This double standard is a disgusting representation of the corrupt legal system.
I felt that it was important to share Saraya’s story not only because she deserves justice but because her story represents many. Sarya’s story represents a legal and healthcare system that has failed many and will continue to until change happens. The failures in the system are deeply rooted and cannot be singlehandedly changed, but I like to believe that if we stay united and consistent, change is inevitable.
At the bottom of this article there will be resources for you to learn more about Saraya’s story and ways that you can take action. I urge you to any privileges you may have to help Saraya find justice, as her story represents a corrupt legal and healthcare system that needs to be changed. Individuals experiencing mental illness deserve to receive proper support and care, unlike what Saraya has been given.