Joseph Cox, Don't Drop the Soap: Clean Out Prison Rape, The Inductive Blog, April 13, 2010

You probably won't be surprised to learn that people get raped in prison. It might actually be the first thing that you think of about prison: men rape other men there. Well, if everyone knows that sexual assault occurs frequently behind bars, then why don't we do something about it? The problem is that people fail to consider that behind humorous clichés like "don't drop the soap" lies a brutal reality: every year over a hundred thousand human beings are graphically abused, molested and penetrated forcibly and violently and this reality is paid for by your tax dollars, all too frequently supported or perpetrated by prison staff and institutionalized by our disregard. If we cared enough to stop prison rape it could driven to the brink of extinction, as a new report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics commissioned by the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act demonstrates.

A recent two part story on prison rape in the New York Revue of Books lays out the tragic preventability of prison sexual assault:

One of the most pernicious myths about prisoner rape is that it is an inevitable part of life behind bars. This is simply wrong. As the variance in the BJS findings shows, it can be prevented. In well-run facilities across the country it is being prevented—and this shouldn’t be surprising. After all, the government has extraordinary control over the lives of those it locks up. Stopping sexual abuse in detention is a matter of using sound policies and practices, and passing laws that require them.

The variance mentioned is that six prisons in this country have no reported sexual assault in the past year, while another seven report over ten percent of prisoners as sexual victims. One group of prison conclusively proves that prisons do not have to entail rape, the other shows that even when a prison becomes a demonstrably cruel beyond comprehension there is no accountability. That prisons exist where over ten percent of prisoners are annual rape victims should be a national scandal. Reporters should stand in front of these institutions with pictures of the wardens and decry that we grossly fail to protect people who are entirely in our charge. Instead we shrug as though it is an intractable a problem as cold in the winter.

Another post by the NY Book Review highlights that many of the victims are children, usually physically smaller or mentally handicapped and rarely guilty of violent crimes (only 34% of incarcerated juveniles are violent offenders). If anything the abuse of minors in the detention system is even more widespread than among adults: "12.1 percent of kids taking the BJS survey across the country said they’d been sexually abused at their current facility during the preceding year. That’s approximately 3,220 out of the 26,550 who were eligible to take it." If that wasn't horrible enough, the perpetrators of the abuse usually aren't fellow inmates: "A full 80 percent of the abuse reported in the study was perpetrated not by other inmates but by staff."

This is clearly an unacceptable status quo, and the measures required to correct it are hardly beyond the pale:

* A written policy mandating zero tolerance toward all forms of sexual abuse.” Staff and inmates must “understand what constitutes sexual abuse, know penalties exist for perpetration by prisoners or staff, and believe management will treat all incidents seriously... * One of the commission’s most important standards requires that all inmates be screened in order “to assess their risk of being sexually abused by other inmates or sexually abusive toward other inmates.” These screenings must rely on specific criteria that have been shown to be relevant to sexual violence. The results must then be taken into account when deciding where inmates will be lodged... * Supervision is the core practice of any correctional agency, and it must be carried out in ways that protect individuals from sexual abuse. The Commission believes it is possible to meet this standard in any facility, regardless of design, through appropriate deployment of staff.

These three elements, accountability, planning and supervision should a given of effective prison management. They have also proven effective in reducing prison homicide: “Since 1980 the murder rate inside prisons has fallen more than 90 percent, which should give pause to those inclined to think that prisons are impossible to reform.”

Yet, despite the moral urgency of the issue and the clear method of correction, the authors of the article believe that prison administrators have banded together to convince Attorney General Holder to water down the commission's recommendations to reduce the cost and accountability. This is morally unacceptable. I believe strongly in comprehensive prison and criminal justice reforms that I know are not widely popular, however rape reform should not attract controversy. Whatever you think of criminals, surely they do not deserve to be brutalized under our supervision. Some policy issues are simply not conducive to splitting the difference. You can't be halfway pregnant and you can't halfway prevent rape. Any compromises that place more defenseless individuals in harm's way should be reason for public outrage until prison rape is eradicated like the preventable disease it is.

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