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"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 an excellent 2001 Human Rights Watch report), a lot of bloggers are discussing prison rape today, and past posts are being linked again. A lot of them are quite good:

From Ezra:

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.

New Donkey:

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?

Booman Tribune:

...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.

Shakespeare's Sister:

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.

ACS Blog:

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.

Brendan Nyhan:

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.

The Hindsight Factor:

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.

The Debate Link:

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.

From a 2004 article in Legal Affairs (curtsy: Instapundit):

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.")
Dr. Mellisa Clouthier
Asymmetrical Information
Christopher Hayes
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)
Rservenat Daily Kos (the writer was at one time a "correctional specialist" in the armed forces)

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.

(Crossposted on "Alas, a Blog").

Originally posted to Ampersand on Tue Feb 13, 2007 at 02:33 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Truly an issue we need to confront. (4+ / 0-)

    There is no doubt that in this day and age, our prison system is designed to PUNISH, and not "Correct" the people trapped within. It's abhorrent how in common society, rape is "wrong", but when someone is raped in prison, "they had it coming" (hahaha). As you noted, it's shockingly easy to joke about rape as an abstract - even "deserved" concept - when you aren't the one being held down and forced against your will.

    As Ani DiFranco would say, "it's sort of like a running joke...that's really not funny."

    "Just give me an easy life and a peaceful death" -The Sundays.

    by Diaries on Tue Feb 13, 2007 at 02:41:46 PM PST

  •  Thanks for posting (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    sockpuppet, davidincleveland

    As I noted in the Tapped comments yesterday, the report is 6 years old.  It had the intended effect on Capitol Hill.  Jeff Sessions and Ted Kennedy cosponsored a bill (and when those two guys agree on something, its hard to imagine who'd disagree) to set up a Prison Rape Elimination Commission.  

    Bush signed it into law and the Commission is now  holding hearings (next one is in Austin next month).  Granted they're taking their sweet time, but I'm confident whatever recommendations the Commission comes up with (and if anyone has any ideas on the subject, I hope they'd share it with them) is going to be pass with bipartisan support.

  •  The prison system (7+ / 0-)

    does its best to keep the shades drawn on life inside the walls and to keep all inmates isolated from society.  In this false world, a sick society develops with its own rules regarding normal and prohibited behavior.  It is a world upside-down.

    Custody staff knows that a united inmate population is powerful, demanding and dangerous.  To keep the focus off themselves, they promote racism, violence and retribution.  While the inmates are busy mistrusting and fearing each other, the staff has it easy.

    And so we treat these men like animals, often fearing for their lives, for years, then release them and expect them to be gentlemen.  With 99% of inmates expected to be released, we ought to better prepare them for polite society.  Unless, that is, we want to do our best to ensure they return to crime...and prison.

    (-7.75, -7.69) No matter how cynical I get, I just can't keep up - Lily Tomlin

    by john07801 on Tue Feb 13, 2007 at 02:45:27 PM PST

  •  No one cares (8+ / 0-)

    which is why nothing is done. We build prisons to house young black males (and now hispanic gang members ) who are primarily senteced as part of a "war on drugs" that we all have known for 20 years is a fraud.

    You can't just single out prison rape as an issue, it's an entire culture which is the problem and to really change it you have to take on issues like the war on drugs, mandatory sentencing, the abandonment of any concept of rehabiliation and ultimately a culture in love with the idea of "punishment".

    We are powerless to act in cases of oral-genital intimacy unless it obstructs interstate commerce. - J. Edgar Hoover

    by tiponeill on Tue Feb 13, 2007 at 02:46:27 PM PST

  •  I wrote on that topic... (5+ / 0-)

    ...once upon a time:  Ever

    Teacher's Lounge opens each Saturday, sometime between 10am and 12 noon EST

    by rserven on Tue Feb 13, 2007 at 02:52:28 PM PST

  •  for white guys not worried about prison (0+ / 0-)

    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

    One of the linked studies says that being white makes you more likely to be raped in prison (among other risk factors). There's definitely an element of payback in the way perpetrators select their targets.

    •  Don't assume too much... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Although the correlation is there, studies have been indeterminate regarding if whites are chosen because of their skin color, or if other factors are at work. (See the discussion of this issue in Fleisher's report, linked to at the bottom of my diary).

      There are other possible causes than racial "payback" for the statistics. For instance, if rape victims are nearly always not members of any gangs, and if gangs are very disproportionately non-white, the result would be that whites are disproportionately likely to be rape victims. We can't assume we know what the cause of that statistic is, without further study.

  •  A major issue (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    sockpuppet, Kingsmeg, Diaries

    Thank you for keeping it to the front here at this site. I think many people want to look away because they feel powerless. But the existence of prison rape, while traumatic and life-threatening to those who suffer it, is also a way to terrorize the non-prison component of the population into conformity and fear to break any law.

    That such barbarism exists within the walls of formal government buildings proves that the veneer of civilization in this society has worn nearly totally away.

    Prison rape, the supermax facilities, torture in our own jails and prisons ... this was the precursor to the use of torture by the Bush Administration. In this way have the crimes of Guantanamo stemmed from the guilty silence of the society at large.

    Never In Our Names

    "The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth."

    by Valtin on Tue Feb 13, 2007 at 03:19:51 PM PST

    •  Scary... (0+ / 0-)

      Prison rape certainly scares me.  I watched a show last night, I think on the Science channel, about prisoners in San Quentin.  Very scary.  I don't see how a person can spend time in there and come out to behave normal.  As I've been reading about it, I've been trying to get a sense of how at risk I'd be.  I'm white.  The jury is still out on how that affects things.  I wouldn't want to join a gang (but for protection, who knows?).  There's a strike against me.  I'm a fairly big guy and not feminine looking, there's something for me.

  • on Religion and Prison Rape (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Ampersand, thanks for this!  But please, in your list, also include's mention of how religion and prison rape intersect.

    The idea that people convert to a religion because its members are abstaining from torturing fellow inmates and defending other members from attempted torture is one that shines a positive light on religion--it shows the good influence that it can have on people, even when they have bad influences all around them.

    (On the other hand, Ali Eteraz points out that the most likely avid protectors aren't exactly meditative "faithful rather than dogmatic" types.  So though religion can make people treat their fellow human beings better, it seems that in such a bad environment, religion that's a little less considerate towards all human beings and a little more concerned with its own population (and enforcing rules on members of its own population) is more likely to inspire people to actually take violent action to intervene when a member's threatened without stopping to ponder the implications.)

    One commenter pointed out that white supremacism also became popular in prison for a similar reason--though the commenter didn't mention whether or not white supremacists refrain from torturing (raping) anyone the way the Muslims have been known to do or if they just refrain from doing it to whites and protect whites.  So is there something inherently good in religion that's making people behave better in this case, or is any group identity enough to make its members stop abusing other people and come to other members' rescue?  The question goes unanswered, but I sure would like to see it discussed.

    Thanks, Amp.

    •  Shiny gray blockquote (0+ / 0-)

      Oh, and here's a shiny little blockquote if you want one:

      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.

  •  Prisons should be uncomfortable, boring, and safe (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    In addition to the simple morality of the issue, it is not in the best interest of society to add to the number of brutalized people.  

    More likely than not, the brutalized will return to the outside and take revenge on those around them.

    Drunk frat boy drives country into "El" pillar--runs away before dad takes keys.

    by Bronx59 on Tue Feb 13, 2007 at 04:45:43 PM PST

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