A Tough Subject

The current scandal of sexual abuse at a juvenile facility in Texas is but one example of a phenomenon that has long been a dark underside of the U.S. prison systemthe rape of prisoners. The Texas case involves the abuse of youths by staff members at a state-run school. But nationally the abuse has largely been the rape of inmates by other inmates. The danger that this will occur has been increased by overcrowding, as the incarcerated population reaches record numbers. The destructive effects of prison rape were pointed out in a 1994 Supreme Court case by Justice Harry A. Blackmun: The horrors experienced by many young inmates, particularly those who are convicted of nonviolent offenses, border on the unimaginable. Prison rape, he continued, is potentially devastating to the human spirit.

In the general public, there is little sympathy for men and youth sexually abused behind bars. Some take the view that as lawbreakers, they deserve it. Others see it as a joke. A recent movie by Universal Pictures, Let’s Go to Prison, is of the latter kind. It concerns a prisoner deliberately placed in a cell with a gang leader predator, who quickly makes unwanted advances. Movie posters in some cities showed a prison shower room, with a piece of soap on the floor. The implication is, if you drop the soap, don’t bend over. Rights organizations protested to Universal and eventually the posters were removed.

Finally acting upon the gravity of the issue, in 2003 Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act. The problem had been underscored two years earlier in a lengthy report by Human Rights Watch, No Escape: Male Rape in U.S. Prisons. The study accuses authorities at the federal, state and local levels of doing little to investigate or prevent sexual assaults. Although the available numbers are only estimates, Representative Frank Wolf said in congressional testimony prior to the passage of the P.R.E.A. that among male prisoners, a conservative estimate is that one in 10 has been raped.

Numbers are difficult to come by because inmates fear that confidentiality will be broken. They also fear retaliation by their attackers. Lovisa Stannow, co-executive director of the California-based human rights organization Stop Prisoner Rape, told America that one new effort to ensure anonymity, developed by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, is the use of a technically assisted method. A prisoner sits at a computer in facilities randomly selected and answers questions posed in a basic and straightforward manner, she said. But even with precautions like these, the fears remain great. As a result, few victims over the years have filed formal complaints.

Victims can be of any race or age, but the most likely targets are young, nonviolent, first-time offenders, as well as prisoners who are gay or transgender. Also especially at risk are inmates with mental illness. And as the Prison Rape Elimination Act itself notes, juveniles are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted if they are confined in adult facilitiesthough the Texas case highlights the sad fact that even in juvenile facilities, they can be abused by the very people responsible for their care. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics has reported, in fact, that state-operated juvenile facilities...had the highest rate of alleged staff sexual misconduct. Overall, youth-on-youth nonconsensual acts occurred at six times the rate of inmate-on-inmate sexual abuses in state prison systems.

Whether adults or juveniles, most inmates are eventually released. The consequent risk of spreading H.I.V./AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases back into the community is all the greater in the case of those who have been sexually assaulted. Ms. Stannow observed that H.I.V. rates are over three times higher in jails and prisons than in the general population. But victims suffer psychologically too, with lifelong trauma that represents yet another of the costs to society. At both the physical and the psychological level, the destructive impact on human lives is, as Justice Blackmun said, devastating.

The 2003 act is a significant step in the right direction, and its provisions are important. But the pace at which they are being implemented through mandated, effective prevention measures is slow. One of P.R.E.A.’s provisions created a commission whose primary purpose is to study the issue and develop standards for preventing rape. The commission has held over half a dozen public hearings around the country, with victims among those giving testimony. Hearings are continuing, and the commission’s long-awaited report is expected in 2008. It will ultimately lead to the issuance of national standards aimed at addressing a problem that has long darkened an already troubled prison system. Those standards and their implementation cannot come soon enough.

10 years 1 month ago
Your editorial on the issue of prison rape is right on the mark and timely.

I urgently suggest you read, review and recommend a newly published memoir by (Catholic) author TJ Parsell, entitled "Fish."

Not just a victim's personal account of this rampant, ignored outrage to human and civil rights, "Fish" is a beautifully written work of literature.

PS. The title, "Fish," does not refer to the symbol early Christians used to recognize each other; nor to present day car-trunk emblems ... but the irony is there. For a so-called "faith-based" nation, we're long on talk and short on walk.

Edward Hannibal

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