JDI IN THE NEWS - 2005

When rape is a joke, USA Today, August 10, 2005.

Making jokes at the expense of rape victims is intolerable to decent people - except when the victim happens to be incarcerated. Then, it seems, hardly anyone cares - about the comedy, or the underlying brutality.

Comedians feel free to crack wise. Prosecutors and police use the threat of the prospect of prison rape as leverage to win confessions and plea bargains.

No one cares enough to have developed a reliable estimate of sexual assaults in the nation's prisons and jails. A recent Justice Department report found 2,100 substantiated cases of sexual assault out of 8,210 formal complaints filed in 2004.

The report's authors concede that's a gross underestimate. Most assaults go unreported because inmates fear reprisals from their attackers and doubt that prison guards will protect them. Worse, sexual assaults and illicit contact at juvenile prisons are 10 times the rate at adult lockups, the report said.

Human rights groups cite a 2000 survey published in The Prison Journal that found almost 10% of the nation's 2.1 million inmates are raped each year. Officials of the American Correctional Association estimate that 1% of inmates might be assaulted.

Either figure is outrageous. Tolerating rape with an indifferent shrug, or smirk, announces that officials aren't in control of their facilities. The public's complacent attitude - that assaults are inevitable and that inmates deserve their fate - prevents reform.

True, some victims may be vicious thugs themselves. But half of all prisoners are jailed for non-violent crimes. Victims are typically the most vulnerable - young, non-violent, first-time offenders who are small, weak, gay or effeminate, according to Human Rights Watch. Rape helps turn them away from rehabilitation and toward violent crime.

Rates of HIV are at least four times as high inside prison as outside, making forced sex a potential death sentence. Stephen Donaldson, the late president of the group Stop Prison Rape, died after being infected with HIV. He had been gang-raped in a Washington, D.C., jail. Other inmates have committed suicide after assaults, the group says.

Prosecuting rapes in prison, as elsewhere, is difficult because cases often come down to one inmate's word against another's. Even so, authorities need to protect the vulnerable by making sure they don't share cells with predators and complaints are investigated seriously, not dismissed as "lovers' quarrels."

Prison rape is not a joke. It's a crime. Late-night comics may not recognize that, but the criminal justice system should.