Preventing Prison Rape

January 26th, 2011 at 5:18 pm | 16 Comments |

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Seven years after Congress passed legislation mandating new federal standards to prevent prison rape and several months after the official deadline for issuing standards, Eric Holder’s Department of Justice finally came out with new national standards earlier this week. Sadly, they aren’t very good.

By all accounts, sexual abuse happens in detention with alarming frequency. While the abuse takes all sorts of forms—guards often prey on juvenile inmates and incarcerated women attack one another—most jailhouse sexual assaults involve male inmates raping other male inmates. Although this, mystifyingly, remains a legitimate topic for late night talk show hosts and stand up comedians, it’s a deadly serious problem that the country has ignored for too long.  By some measures, the two million or so Americans in prison and jail may suffer more sexual assaults than the more than 300 million people in the world at large.

Holder’s guidelines, although a bit better than nothing, ignore many of the key recommendations of a blue-ribbon panel that produced an advisory report on sexual abuse behind bars. For example, they will gut requirements that prisons perform audits on sexual abuse and significantly limit the ability of opposite-gender guards to view naked inmates following searches. These things will cost money, of course, but a Booz-Allan-Hamilton report that DOJ itself commissioned found that the costs would be exceedingly modest and virtually invisible in some settings.   In any case, the costs of inaction—more powerful racial/ethnic supremacist gangs within prisons, billions of dollars (quite possibly) in inmate mental health bills—far exceed whatever corrections departments might have to spend to enforce truly tough anti-sexual abuse standards.

Nearly everyone in prison has done something horribly wrong. But inmates still do possess fundamental human rights. Weak standards like those Holder has proposed simply won’t fix the nation’s most ignored crime problem.


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16 Comments so far ↓

  • Nanotek

    “Although this, mystifyingly, remains a legitimate topic for late night talk show hosts and stand up comedians, it’s a deadly serious problem that the country has ignored for too long”

    agreed

    what is the best way to solve it?

  • kevin47

    “By all accounts, sexual abuse happens in detention with alarming frequency.”

    Not all accounts. My father is in prison, and he has never experienced nor witnessed any such incident. The same holds true for most criminals (Survivor’s Richard Hatch being on example) who have no agenda to advance w/r/t prison rape.

    “While the abuse takes all sorts of forms—guards often prey on juvenile inmates and incarcerated women attack one another—most jailhouse sexual assaults involve male inmates raping other male inmates.”

    On what evidence? Has this ever been caught on camera? Other forms of violence have.

    “By some measures, the two million or so Americans in prison and jail may suffer more sexual assaults than the more than 300 million people in the world at large.”

    Which measures are those?

    “In any case, the costs of inaction—more powerful racial/ethnic supremacist gangs within prisons, billions of dollars (quite possibly) in inmate mental health bills”

    Sneaking your qualifier in viz. parenthesis is inherently disingenuous. Unless there is evidence that the phenomenon is costing us billions in inmate health bills (and the onus is on you to demonstrate this is so) then there is nor reason to assert the fact.

    I get that Republicans see this as a great opportunity to define the center, but the evidence that there are widespread sexual assaults in prison does not match the lore.

  • Carney

    To its credit, Human Rights Watch published a book about this: “No Escape: Male Rape in US Prisons”

    http://www.hrw.org/legacy/reports/2001/prison/

    that unflinchingly and fully examined the racial aspect of this horribly widespread phenomenon. Unflinching because the victims and victimizers here do not fit the PC non-profit world and the mainstream media’s preferred narrative.

    As a result of HRW’s courage, ears perked up in certain quarters:

    http://www.amren.com/ar/2002/04/index.html#article1

  • Alex 0_0

    Of course all rape is awful, but let’s focus on the sexual assaults experienced by American women who haven’t broken any law and on the victims of the criminals now in prison. Let’s spend money on helping the innocent victims of crime instead of worrying about the criminals. If the public budget really is as tight as it appears, helping convicts is just about the last priority. Already states like California spend more on prisons then they do on higher education, enough.

  • andydp

    I worked in an all male Connecticut jail for seven years. Rapes do happen and will continue to happen. You can take some preventive measures (like solitary confinement/protective detention) but it will happen. In some jails, its one Corrections Officer per 50 inmates. Its impossible to prevent any and all crimes in a jail.

    Like they told us when we started: You’re only there to make sure they don’t kill each other.

  • Primrose

    Alex,

    As a woman, and a feminist, I appreciate your concern about the problem of rape for American women. However, I don’t think your argument about priority follows. Firstly, I think you either take rape seriously and have a zero tolerance or you don’t. If you say rape can be ignored in one situation and not the other, you minimize the crime, and lead to it being overlooked in those society considers less worthy, not simply non-criminals. (A note, African-Americans are not just more likely to find themselves in jail, they are less likely to find justice when they are the victim.)

    The crime itself is a violation, not simply the person.

    Furthermore, we should throw out the good kid/bad kid syndrome and understand behavior on a continuum. While those in prison are criminals, their crimes are not equal. A kid in jail for pot possession, or even more serious car theft, is not the same as as a gangbanger.

    Yes, I might cry crocodile tears for a violent murder/rapist suffering violent assault himself, I have very real compassion to the non-violent offender. I may feel there should be a punishment for the guy who breaks my car window and steals my GPS, but I hardly think being raped is commensurate with the sin. It is not. It is cruel and unusual, and counter-productive.

    Which gets down to the heart of the matter, unless we get control of this situation, we are abridging the constitutional rights of a majority of male (and some female) prisoners. Ensuring our citizens constitutional rights should always be a priority.

    And to Andydp, I am rarely impressed by statements, “It will always happen. There is nothing we can do about it.” Instead of permitting and untenable situation, perhaps you could use your experience to help find creative, new ways to prevent this situation.

  • lessadoabouteverything

    primrose, great point about the stupidity of throwing a kid in jail for pot possession or shop lifting.These are not “something horribly wrong.” Put a 20 year old in jail for selling pot in college and he is likely to come out a hardened criminal who made a lot of drug contacts, and if he is raped and brutalized will not think twice of doing the same when he gets out on the street.

  • iveyguy

    Primrose,

    Thank you for your excellent post.

    I know little of the US prison system. However, in Canada the worst conditions, which suffer a disproportionate number of prisoner sexual assaults are for those that are in pre-trial custody. In other words those that have not yet had their day in court. Even if one accepts –which I do not– the logic of “who cares as they are criminals they get what they deserve”, this manifestly does not hold for those that are simply accused criminals.

  • getzburg

    Nearly everyone in prison has done something horribly wrong.

    Except, of course, for all those otherwise harmless people we’ve jailed for drug possession.

  • pnwguy

    Sadly, I think public attitudes about conditions in the US penal system are much to blame. The public seems to have little concern about what happens to prisoners, as long as criminals are kept away from society. We’ve long lost the concept of prison as place to reform behavior and primarily use it as social vengeance for unacceptable acts. I would imagine that a public poll about prison rape would find a significant percent FAVORS it as karmic justice.

    Out of a collection of different public policy issues, I think talking about prison and incarceration gets the least intelligent dialog of just about any topic. That’s why politicians of all stripes can mileage out of “tough on crime” dialog in their campaigns. Even with most states in budget hell right now, initiatives for longer sentencing and more laws with criminal penalties keep passing.

    The reality is that very few people die in prison. So most of them get returned to society. And it’s sure counter productive to make these people MORE hateful and callous as the result of their incarceration.

    I give credit to Sen. Jim Webb for taking initiative on prisons and incarceration rates. And to private citizens like Chuck Colson who has made this much of his life’s work preaching to an audience (evangelical and fundamentalist Christians) who often would be hardened to the plight of prisoners.

    With the extremely high portion of state government expenditures tied up in the penal system, conservatives should be taking the lead on these issues. Using prisons as a social remedy should really be a last resort – it’s damn expensive – saved primarily for isolating the violent from the rest of us. But sadly, the attitude I hear among my more conservative friends is to save taxpayer money, we just need more and faster executions and more dismal conditions for those in custody. It’s all about vengeance.

    Primrose – excellent and articulate post.

  • Carney

    pnwguy, I don’t mind seeing prison as retributive justice rather than as a reformatory.

    The American people were, rightly, so fed up by revolving door jails of the 60s and after that after a lengthy struggle against a dug-in left-leaning legal establishment it finally succeeded in imposing mandatory minimum sentences – the KEY factor in the collapse of the crime rate. By keeping the criminally inclined off the streets for life or until after they are too old to be dangerous or at least to have testosterone levels prompting them toward violence, mandatory minimums are THE tool we have needed to preserve public safety from liberal judges.

    However, prison rape is totally unacceptable, and if it’s systematically condoned then it becomes a deliberately imposed punishment and a violation of the 8th Amendment – a REAL violation, as opposed to Nutraloaf. Furthermore, it’s interesting that PC groups and officials who take racially “disparate impact” seriously when it affects blacks, Hispanics, etc., have not raised an outcry at the systematic racial pattern of this phenomenon.

  • Carney

    BTW, I’m happy to see OpenOffice advertising here on FrumForum.

  • Alex 0_0

    There needs to be a distinction between violent criminals and non-violent. Those convicted of violent felonies should be warehoused for as long as possible and the conditions of their imprisonment are not a huge priority. I testified against the scumbag who tried to attack me when I briefly lived in Dallas; he was convicted for a series of violent attacks targeting the gay-friendly Oak Lawn neighborhood and sentenced to 14 years. If he’s getting raped in prison, or otherwise assaulted, then that’s too bad, but I don’t really care if he dies in prison or not and neither does anybody else in Texas.

    Non-violent criminals—like drugs, car theft, etc—should be rehabilitated in separated prisons. Violent criminals, including Carney’s White Pride buddies, can rot in prison hell, their well-being is the least important priority facing government right now.

    But the best reason to bookmark this item is that it exposes Carney as a White Supremacist, just like most “social conservatives.” Above, Carney actually provides a link to the “American Renaissance,” a White Pride outfit. For Carney and social conservatives the problem of prison rape is racial, read the link he provides. Let Carney and his Aryan Nation fund prison improvements from their own pocket, not from taxpayer’s money. Prison budgets should be cut, not increased. In fact, we should call Scalia on his bluff and impose “originalist” prison conditions such as those that existed in 1791.

  • Ruminant

    iveyguy,

    Thanks for bringing up the existence of pretrial inmates. Here in the US, a little over one-quarter of our inmates are pretrial. Even if the “they are criminals so it’s okay” argument was morally or legally acceptable, it does not hold for those pretrial inmates.

    And as Primrose and Carney have mentioned, we should not accept prison rape even when it happens to convicted criminals. Permitting prison rape seems like a clear violation of the 8th amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments.

  • rbottoms

    No surprise that the so-called social conservatives are just mean spirited jerks with the intellect of a 13 year old when it comes to violet sexual assault of anyone.

  • Primrose

    As to the prison system in general, which seems to be discussed as well, I think we need to figure out what outcomes we want and then pursue the best goals to achieve it.

    Personally, I don’t think justice and emotional satisfaction should have any discussions. If a verdict, satisfies societies need to feel good, great. If it doesn’t, that’s the breaks. I think of all the reasons to lock someone up or not, vengeance is the most irrelevant.

    I think victims have the right to speak, and confront. Their right comes not to assuage their desire for vengeance but to make the impact of the crime real, both for the considering it and the criminal.

    For violent offenders, is our prison system meant to deter or to isolate? If it is meant to deter, then poor conditions make a kind of logical sense. If it is meant to isolate, to protect society, they don’t. Of course, poor conditions are not wise if we expect the offender to ever be released, and they make it more difficult to control the prisoners within.

    I don’t see that a purely deterrent approach has in fact deterred, at least when judged from a cost/benefit ratio. (The lowered crime level does not actually co-incide with minimum sentences, so much as a change in policing, a smaller generation, and matters like that. If it was minimum sentences, then you would see cyclic crime rates, as people served their terms.)

    Punishment, unaccompanied by positive direction, does not seem to induce change in enough people. I can certainly see that in my children. I need to address the cause of the misbehavior not just punish it, if I really want to end the behavior. To put it another way, punishment sets the boundary, other mechanisms ensure they stay within it.

    You can say just don’t let them out, but “violent” offenders is a problematic term. It can mean the great boogeyman murder/rapist, serial killer or pedophile. It can also mean a kid in assigned to be the get-away driver in an armed robbery. The driver may never have held a gun, and certainly never harmed anyone, nor would have should matters come to that, but since others did, that person would be considered violent.

    We are far from subtle in our delineations, and far from objective. You are far more likely to be put in a tougher prison, if you are African-American or Latino, than if you are white—for the same crime. Class also plays a nasty little role in this process.

    So I hesitate to simply cut off this group of people from their constitutional rights, as Alex is willing to do. I also feel that these cut and dried categories cause more problems than they solve.

    Since the majority of violent offenders are male, and young men to boot, we clearly have special challenges, a developmental delay, a vulnerability toward risk-taking in this (offenders) population, or something. Statistically, they can’t all be genetic sociopaths.

    A blunt law and order analysis may give me permission not to care but it doesn’t solve the problems. Our prisons just keep getting bigger, and more costly, and people’s lives are ruined. As the kind of person who frets if I break the least rule, I view a more carefree approach to the law with disfavor.

    But I also recognize that people don’t run on binary code, and that we are not getting the outcomes, (I presume) we want from our current system. Simply pretending the don’t exist, so anything goes, seems to me a failed response.