“The opposite of compassion is not hatred, it’s indifference.”
–Anonymous prisoner quoted by Human Rights Watch
In response to Ezra Klein’s two posts on prison rape yesterday (which themselves relied on a 2001 Human Rights Watch report), a lot of bloggers are discussing prison rape today, and past posts are being linked again. Here are quotes from some of the blog posts I’ve been reading:
I understand why this is a politically tough issue: There’s no political upside to helping criminals, and the prison guard’s unions are terrifically powerful on the state level. But politically tough as it may be to address, it’s morally abhorrent to ignore. And we have to remember: Every single time we sentence a suspect to jail time, we are tacitly consenting not merely to his imprisonment, but to his savage sexual assault, with all the physical and psychological damage it will bring.
If you want to get involved, or donate money, or learn more, Stop Prisoner Rape is the leading organization on the issue. Their website is here.
Simple indifference aside, there are two obvious barriers to eliminating prison rape. The first is that most of the remedies are controversial (incarcerating far fewer non-violent offenders) or very expensive (building less crowded prisons, providing much higher pay and better training and supervision of prison staff, or radically improving monitoring of inmates).
And the second barrier to change is the really dirty little non-secret underlying tolerance of prison rape: the idea that it’s an effective deterrent to criminal behavior.
This “walk the line or get raped” attitude has undeniably been prevalent on the political Right, where for years politicians have railed against so-called “country-club prisons” and suggested that inmates deserve the most barbarous conditions imaginable. (There has to be a special place in hell for conservatives who want to criminalize loving, consensual gay and lesbian relationships, while smiling upon prison rape.) But it’s also found implicit currency elsewhere, among virtually every advocacy group that wants to deter some anti-social behavior, from drunk driving to white collar crime…
Robert at Lawyers, Guns and Money:
To add briefly to the point that Ezra has made, one of the most irritating aspects of CSI (which, sadly, I have been unable to break from) is the common, almost offhand manner in which the heroes threaten suspects with the prospect of rape in prison. It suggests to me that the public at large has simply concluded that a) rape is an integral part of prison life, such that a five year prison sentence automatically includes five years of rape, and b) that anyone who goes to prison is irredeemably besmirched, and thus deserving of constant rape.
To take this a bit farther, it’s interesting to compare modern conceptions of prison (sadly or no, I’ve never seen Prison Break) with the work of Johnny Cash or Merle Haggard. For Haggard or Cash, that a poor white family would have to deal with the prison system in some fashion was simply a fact of life, even if Cash himself only spent one night behind bars. Moreover, neither Cash nor Haggard dodged the question of guilt; even if the protagonists of their songs weren’t going away for life, they were usually guilty of something. At some point (probably as the War on Drugs saw a steady increase in the incarceration percentages of young black men) the idea that white people would have to deal with prison became alien. Is there music or other art today that deals with the possibility that guilty white folks might spend time in prison, and thus that prison should be made at least survivable?
…Giving someone HIV and subjecting them to rape, assault, and torture is inhumane, it’s illegal, it’s immoral, and, in this case, it is completely incommensurate with the offense. It’s appalling what goes on in our prisons. I saw another piece on American prisons on 60 Minutes last night. A prisoner with mental problems was allowed to die of thirst in a Michigan prison. They were strapping him to his bed for 18 hours a day. They caught his death on tape.
It’s interesting, by the way, to see how different the comments threads are from typical rape threads. No one is suggesting that rape victims in prison are “crying rape” for ulterior motives, for example.
Also, although no one is saying, “Hey—if people don’t want to get raped, they shouldn’t commit crimes for which they’ll be sent to prison if convicted,” unfortunately its absence isn’t because that sort of victim-blaming isn’t operative, but, instead, boasts such wide tacit agreement that it isn’t even worth saying. There are plenty of people (including progressives) who simply don’t blanch at the thought that rape is a likely part of any prison sentence.
I’ve heard that attitude ascribed to many things, from ignorance of the prevalence of prison rape to contempt for the rule of law, but I suspect the predominant quality which most closely tracks with holding the position is never having been raped oneself.
A recent ACS Issue Brief by attorney Deborah Golden warns that a federal law intended to prevent frivolous suits by prisoners involving such issues as “insufficient locker space, a defective haircut by a prison barber, the failure of prison officials to invite a prisoner to a pizza party for a departing prison employee, and yes, being served chunky peanut butter instead of the creamy variety” may also shield prison guards who rape prisoners from being sued by their victims. Under the Prison Litgation Reform Act of 1996, prisoners may only bring suits if they can demonstrate a “physical injury,” but the law does not define whether or not rape is such an injury.
Julian Sanchez at Hit and Run in 2003:
In the case of prisons, the state is at least a partial agent of the harm: It establishes the prisons in which convicts are confined and removes the ability of inmates to defend themselves against the felons with whom they’re compelled to coexist. You don’t get to throw someone naked into a pit of bengal tigers and then proclaim, with a look of wide eyed innocence, that it’s nothing to do with you if the guy gets mauled to death.
If you asked me what issue Americans will see in retrospect as the greatest unacknowledged barbarity of our time, I would nominate prison rape, which is not only tolerated but frequently encouraged within our prisons and is still the subject of jokes in popular culture and politics.
We spend a fair amount of time talking about detainee treatment and Guantanamo. But there is no greater, or more common, human rights abuses in America than those occurring in our overcrowded, constantly expanding, jails.
Ezra Klein wrote a series of posts on Prison Rape that are really worth reading. As it happens, my roommates were busy cracking jokes about prison rape while I was reading them, and I kind of flew off at them. Accuse me of having no sense of humor, if you will (and they did), but when the conceptualization of a problem as a popular joke is one of the key barriers to fixing it, I don’t think it’s a neutral action to play right into that structure…
Agorophilia, from 2004:
I’m still appalled that prison rape is not taken at least as seriously as the death penalty, given that (a) it’s imposed without regard to the severity of your offense, (b) no judge or jury officially approves of the sentence, (c) it’s systematically inflicted on the weakest and most vulnerable of prisoners, (d) the transmission of HIV can make it a de facto death penalty, and (e) it occurs at least an order of magnitude more often than the death penalty. Why isn’t allowing prisoners to be raped considered cruel and unusual punishment?
When I presented my position to a group of college students this summer, most of them libertarians or libertarian-leaning, I was surprised by their willingness to defend prison rape. They relied primarily on a loosely intent-based argument: that while prisoners may unfortunately get raped, that is not the state’s intent when it jails them…
Faith at The Point:
Prison rape is very much a taboo topic. Although rape is a horrific crime, the media has no qualms about reporting on the topic, but when it involves inmates, considered the scum of society, suddenly no one is interested. “They deserve what they get. Let’s leave it at that.” This speaks volumes of the de-humanized way we view those individuals within our justice system. But let’s not forget that those individuals are people, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers. It is true that many have committed heinous crimes, but allowing rape to occur within the walls of an institution promotes chaos.
Note in the [Human Rights Watch] report how the officer simply tells the raped prisoner to find someone who will protect him. When you hang out with the Muslims in prison, they will not rape you. I’m not sure how easy it is for a non-Muslim to gain entry to the Muslims, but someone who has some Muslim leanings, or knew a Muslim on the outside, its not that hard. And again, Muslims in prison might be all hardcore, but THEY DO NOT RAPE (and they don’t let theirs be raped either). So, let’s see, you got a prison system that is turning ablind eye to rape and violence, and you then you got a religion inside the prisons that protects you from those two evils. And people wonder about the spread of Islam in US prisons.
Many other films and books have also invoked the specter of prison rape; to say that it is an unacknowledged problem in American culture is clearly inaccurate. Yet while our culture may not be bashful about discussing prison rape, it has, for the most part, portrayed it as a problem with no solution. Evocations like the one in 25th Hour aren’t meant to inspire outrage in the moviegoer; they’re meant to stir up fear. In films like Lee’s, or Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential, rape is a fixture of prison life as unavoidable as lights out. In Hanson’s film, it’s a convenient shorthand for all the potential horrors of prison that can be used by detectives to extract confessions—from innocent suspects, no less. [...]
Compiling statistics on prison rape involves the same pitfalls as compiling conventional rape statistics. [...] The most authoritative studies of the problem, conducted by the University of South Dakota professor Cindy Struckman-Johnson, found that over 20 percent of prisoners are the victims of some form of coerced sexual contact, and at least 7 percent are raped. Extrapolating from Struckman-Johnson’s findings suggests that some 140,000 current inmates have been raped. [...]
Despite its prevalence, prison rape has generally been treated by courts and corrections officials as it has by novelists and filmmakers—as a problem without a solution. Prison rape is rarely prosecuted; like most crimes committed in prison, rapes aren’t taken on by local district attorneys but left to corrections officials to handle. When inmates seek civil damages against the prison system, as Johnson has done, they must prove not merely that prison officials should have done more to prevent abuse but that they showed “deliberate indifference”—that is, that they had actual knowledge that an inmate was at risk and disregarded it. Showing that a prison guard should have known is not enough, no matter how obvious the signs of abuse.
This standard was established by the Supreme Court in the 1994 case Farmer v. Brennan, in which a transsexual inmate imprisoned for credit card fraud sued federal prison officials for ignoring his rape behind bars. While the court affirmed that prison rape is a violation of an inmate’s constitutional rights and stated plainly that sexual assault is “not part of the penalty that criminal offenders pay for their offenses,” it set up formidable barriers to establishing the culpability of corrections staff. At the cellblock level, the “deliberate indifference” standard discourages prison guards from shining a light into dark corners. What they don’t know can’t hurt them.
The quotes above, and the links below, are from both right and left bloggers; this is a curious case where it appears that everyone agrees, yet nothing ever gets done.
Other bloggers discussing prison rape (not a complete list by any means):
Formal Dressage Required (good post about the schizophrenic media approach to prison rape).
Outside The Beltway.
Unfogged (“I’m so ashamed to have joked about this.”)
Rserven at Daily Kos (the writer was at one time a “correctional specialist” in the armed forces).
Dr. Mellisa Clouthier
Some Guys Are Normal (the blogger implies he’d commit suicide before going to prison).
Patrick at Making Light.
Julian Sanchez (again)
Live From Silver City (discussing a prison gang-rape case currently in the news)
Rev. Chad (this post collects quotes from prisoners)
Further reading: If you have time, you may also want to read through this 300+ page ethnographic report (pdf link), by Mark Fleisher, on attitudes and beliefs about prison rape by prisoners. (Curtsy: Corrections Community.) And also this considerably shorter (15 pages) report from Notra Dame Law School (pdf link). And, needless to say, HRW’s 2001 report.