Ending Prison Rape

April 22nd, 2010 at 7:11 am | 12 Comments |

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In the next few weeks, Attorney General Eric Holder and his staff are going to have to spend some time working on a topic that they would almost certainly rather avoid: prison rape.  Under a 2003 law—the Prison Rape Elimination Act—the Justice Department has to issue standards soon to reduce (and ideally eliminate) sexual abuse behind bars. As much as it may turn some people’s stomachs, the problem is serious and tough action will be needed to combat it.

Here are the facts: around 2 million people are in prison or jail in the United States and experts estimate over a million people have been sexually assaulted behind bars over the last two decades. Given that many inmates are assaulted on multiple occasions (even daily), the absolute number of sexual assaults committed behind bars may exceed the number committed everywhere else in the country put together.

The bulk of sexual violence behind bars involves male prisoners attacking other male prisoners but female inmates also attack other female inmates and corrections officers sometimes prey on the people in their custody.

Although no corrections professional publically condones any of this, inmate-on-inmate sexual violence has some benefits from the standpoint of some prison administrators:  The fear of sexual assault helps racial supremacist gangs keep potential rivals in line and, as such, keeps the peace between factions within prisons.  Likewise, the casual attitude with which society as a whole treats prison rape—how many other serious crimes are valid topics for comic monologues?—has made it difficult to bring the topic the attention it deserves.  The 2003 bill slogged its way through Congress even though it eventually passed both houses without a single dissenting vote.

The standards proposed by the Commission the 2003 law set up are mostly commonsense: zero tolerance for inmate rape and careful monitoring of inmates. Now, the federal government simply has to implement them. And, against this background, some corrections professionals are proposing efforts to narrow the definition of “sexual assault” (as if some sexual assaults are actually okay), and preserve “states rights” in running prisons.

Although few of the people opposing tougher standards have bad intentions, the entire debate is ridiculous.  If any type of sexual assault is taken less seriously, it can easily lead to more serious ones in the future; a broad definition makes sense. Likewise, there’s no place for “states rights” given the gravity of the situation and seriousness of the contact: if a state government can’t stop people in its custody from being raped, then what exactly is it competent to do?

Tough standards are needed to combat prisoner rape. Attorney General Holder and his Department need to impose them.

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12 Comments so far ↓

  • Carney

    I’m very glad this issue is being discussed. It’s an absolute outrage that this is tolerated by society and officials, to the extent of being a routine joke about prison. There is a racial component to it too. For more, see the report titled “No Escape”.

  • DaveEliason

    Our country is in dire need of prison and sentencing reform, especially on this issue. Tolerance of prison rape amounts to both “cruel and unusual punishment” and a capricious implementation of punishment above and beyond what a convict is subject to. Appeals to states rights and “tough on crime” rhetoric are just a method for prison guard unions to keep the entire spectrum of politicians from interfering in their sphere of influence.

  • LFC

    This kind of abuse produces desperation and anger. Anything we can do to keep a one-time criminal from becoming a lifetime criminal is good, especially since it’s not something that should cost tons of money.

  • Rabiner

    Hard to be rehabilitated if you’re more worried about your personal safety. If a prison can’t protect the people it oversees then whats the point of that particular prison? It isn’t like those people will be there forever and when they rejoin society how will they act towards that society that put them in prison only to be sexually abused repeatedly?

  • JeninCT

    I could be wrong but it seems to me that the same laws that give prisoners liberties while they’re in prison might be the laws that allow rapes to occur at such staggering levels. I would imagine that rapes at supermax are rare. Fewer freedoms while one is imprisoned would allow less abuse. Isn’t prison supposed to be about limited freedom?

  • Rabiner

    Actually its because prisons are so overcrowded that leads to increased levels of violence in prison when you normalize for the population.

  • ceartas

    I dunno. In the present economic environment, take the rape away, and everyone will be trying to get in.

  • BoolaBoola

    Some prisoners (Scott Roeder) deserve to be raped.

  • Sunny

    “Some prisoners (Scott Roeder) deserve to be raped.”

    If the sentence carries the implicit understanding that that will, indeed, be what happens, then it needs to be included in the sentencing. Recognizing that there’s a great likelihood of it occurring to anyone sentenced to prison, and doing nothing, is tatamount to accessory before-the-fact.

  • sinz54

    Reforming the prison system (which is national, state, and local) will be a real tough job.

    But in the meantime, we ought not to punish those who commit so-called “victimless crimes” by putting them in with hardened criminals.

    The “three strikes and you’re out” laws have had the undesirable effect of putting too many drug users in prisons along with the most hardened and most vicious criminals. They don’t belong there. Drug addiction is a medical problem.

  • Rabiner

    Sinz54:

    Totally agree and the political forces that are getting laws like that passed are the Prison Guard unions, Police department groups and Private Prison companies. Each of these groups has a vested interest in keeping people behind bars longer regardless on if they’re violent offenders or not. More prisoners means more guards for the union. More prisoners means more money potential for private prisons. And more prisoners means not having to work as hard as a police department when dealing with non-violent crimes.

  • Ultraworld

    I don’t think politicians, prison officials & most important the citizens care enough about this issue to put the time & money into preventing this. The knowledge that I would be raped & beaten to a pulp is enough to keep me from running afoul of the law