Jamelle Bouie, Taking prison rape seriously, True/Slant Blog, May 11, 2010

Amanda Hess calls nonsense on Bryan Caplan’s proposed “solution” to prison rape:

Prison rape doesn’t keep happening because anti-rape activists are lacking in good ideas, but rather because correctional facilities have been reluctant to implement them. For one thing, the idea of reforming prisons by better classifying inmates isn’t new, and weight is far from the sole consideration.


But there’s a larger problem with Caplan’s thesis. Caplan admits that the weight class idea “has no direct effect on the comparable problem of authority-on-prisoner abuse,” but he guesses that “it’s probably easier for a guard to get away with raping a prisoner in an environment where prisoners are raping each other on a regular basis.”

I find Caplan’s assumption—that the standard of behavior in prisons is set by prisoners, and that correctional officers simply conform to whatever standard of rape acceptance they set—extremely depressing. A better idea? Hire and train correctional staff who are committed to eliminating both forms of violence in detention centers. Says Hickey, “Classification helps to address inmate-on-inmate violence, but is unlikely to help protect inmates from predatory staff—that’s where strong policies and practices come into play with regards to training, employment screening, and leadership setting an example that no such abuse will be tolerated.”

Better still would be for the criminal justice system as a whole to take prison rape seriously. According to a 2007 nationwide study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, at least 60,000 federal and state prison inmates were sexually abused in the previous year. A similar study revealed that almost 25,000 county jail prisoners had been sexually abused in the past six months, and earlier this year, the BJS released a study showing that in less than a year, more than 1 in 8 youth in juvenile facilities had been sexually abused by fellow prisoners or guards.

Unfortunately, public opinion doesn’t seem particularly sensitive to victims of prison sexual assault. Indeed, as far as popular culture goes, prison rape is more likely to be the punchline to a joke than a cause for serious concern. Worse, there is little indication that prison administrators are actually interested in stemming the epidemic of sexual assault. Seven years ago, Congress passed the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act, which established national standards aimed at preventing prison rape. Despite the wide bipartisan support behind the bill, it’s rules have yet to be implemented, in large pat because of resistance from the prison lobby. Prison officials claim that the cost of establishing new standards is prohibitive, forcing the Justice Department to commission a cost analysis, which will indefinitely delay the bill’s implementation.

As is the case with most issues pertaining to the criminal justice system, there simply isn’t a constituency for reform outside of the activist class. Even those politicians who see the need to take prison rape seriously aren’t going to champion the cause; politically, there is too much risk and not enough reward. That said, there does seem to be a growing awareness of the epidemic of sexual assault in our nation’s prisons, and with any luck, activists will be successful in bringing the problem out into the open.

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