JDI IN THE NEWS - 2005

The Silent Horror, The Economist, August 4, 2005.

"I'm not small," says Keith DeBlasio, "I was six foot two and 220lb when I went to jail." But his size did not protect him. While in jail for forgery, Mr DeBlasio complained that a fellow inmate was making threatening advances to him. Prison officials at first did nothing, he says, and then put him in the same cubicle as his assailant, who was being treated both for mental illness and for HIV.

Mr DeBlasio might have been able to fight him off, but the man was a gang boss, and a crowd of his homemade-knife-wielding friends were standing nearby. Plus, Mr DeBlasio, unlike the prison authorities, did not know that his rapist was HIV-positive. "The judge gave me a five-year sentence, but somehow along the way it became life," he says.

That prisoners get raped by other prisoners is hardly news. It is the staple of television shows and the subject of "jokes" by, for example, California's attorney-general, who said he'd like to escort a rich white-collar suspect to an "8 by 10 cell that he could share with a tattooed dude who says: 'Hi, my name is Spike, honey.'"

Since everyone knows it goes on, it seems odd that the government has never tried to measure it. But on July 31st, the Department of Justice released its first statistical report on rape behind bars. Based on a sample of 2,730 jails, the department's statisticians estimated that there were 8,210 reported allegations of sexual violence in American jails last year. (The prison population is about 2.1m, though many more pass through each year.)

Welcome though it is, the report has captured only a fraction of the problem. Even outside jail, most rape victims do not report the crime, notes Mr DeBlasio, and they are unlikely to be confined to a cell with their assailant. In jail, "snitches" are often murdered, which may explain why more prisoners in the report complained of being molested by prison staff than by other inmates. In state prisons, most cases of warders molesting inmates involved women molesting men. But 90% of the victims and perpetrators of convict-on-convict sexual offences were male.

The survey was required under the terms of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, a bipartisan law passed in 2003. The next step is to start distributing anonymous questionnaires to prisoners, which the Department of Justice will start doing later this year. It is sure to find grim results: Cindy and David Struckman-Johnson of the University of South Dakota tried something similar in mid-western jails and found that at least 7% of male inmates had been raped and 21% sexually molested.

When the problem has been more accurately measured, perhaps something will be done about it. A good start, says Lovisa Stannow of Stop Prisoner Rape, a campaigning group, would be to separate those most at risk--the small, the young, the non-violent and the openly homosexual--from their more dangerous cellmates. Jamie Fellner of Human Rights Watch also suggests making it easier for prisoners to report abuses directly to the top management. "You don't find a high incidence of rape in well-run institutions," she adds.