Back in 1824, the Reverend Louis Dwight traveled down the East Coast and through the South, visiting prisons. Reporting back, he agitated for reform, so troubled was he by the abuses he had uncovered. “I have found melancholy testimony to establish one general fact, viz., that boys are prostituted to the lust of old convicts,” Dwight described. “Nature and humanity cry aloud for redemption from this dreadful degradation.”
A modern prison visitor would find that little has changed. Prisoners–especially the young, the small, the boyish, and the weak–still enjoy scant protection from violent and degrading sexual abuse. In most prisons, prevention measures are few and the effective punishment of rape, sexual assault and other abuses is rare.
The Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003
In theory, this sad state of affairs should not exist. The Supreme Court, in a landmark 1994 decision, stated unequivocally that allowing rape to occur in prison violates the Constitution.
Still, the Court’s ringing words on the topic did not, by themselves, bring about the needed reforms. To the contrary, the legal standard that the Court applied, by requiring prisoners to prove that prison officials had “actual knowledge” of the risk of rape, created a perverse incentive for officials to remain unaware of the problem.
Now, the wall of ignorance and silence that surrounds prison rape is starting to crack. Last Friday, the House of Representatives, by a unanimous vote, passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003. The Senate passed the bill unanimously on the previous Monday, and it now goes to President Bush for signature.
The new law signals a unprecedented official willingness to acknowledge the tragic consequences of prison rape. By creating a Justice Department review panel to address the problem, as well as a national commission to establish standards, the law will force corrections authorities to begin to take rape seriously. That, as much as the law’s substantive innovations, will be a huge step forward.
The hostility with which some prison authorities reacted to the draft legislation suggests the extent of the official unwillingness to acknowledge the problem of prison rape. According to Reginald Wilkinson, head of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction — which is, ironically, one of only two state prison systems to retain the now old-fashioned concept of rehabilitation in its name, if not in its practices — the idea that prison rape is common is “a flat-out lie.”
Wilkinson is far from a marginal figure in the corrections world. The former head of the American Correctional Association, the prison industry’s standard-setting body, he is now the president of the Association of State Correctional Administrators.
When Wilkinson asserts, as he did in a December 2002 letter to the editor of the Cincinnati Enquirer, that “sexual assault in prison is highly exaggerated,” one can assume that he is articulating a widely-shared view. And, in fact, when Human Rights Watch surveyed state corrections authorities in all fifty states as to the prevalence of prison rape, nearly all of them responded that they knew of only a handful of rape or sexual assault cases annually.
Roughly half of all states said that they did not even compile statistical information about sexual abuse in prison, given the rarity of reported cases. Prison officials in New Mexico, for example, responding to a 1997 request for information, said that they had “no recorded incidents over the past few years.”
Yet independent studies contradict these reassuring official claims. The most recent study, published in December 2000, concluded that 21 percent of the inmates in seven midwestern prison facilities had experienced at least one episode of pressured or forced sexual contact since being incarcerated, and nearly one in ten had been raped.
Wilkinson dismisses such studies as “disingenuous” because they are based on “self reporting” by prisoners. (As opposed to the reliable, objective reporting of prison administrators, I suppose.)
But, as Wilkinson may or may not be aware, even prison guards tend to report high incidences of rape. An internal survey of guards in a southern state (given Human Rights Watch on the condition that the state not be identified) found that line officers — those charged with the direct supervision of inmates — estimated that roughly one-fifth of all prisoners were being coerced into participation in inmate-on-inmate sex.
Similarly, a 1988 study of line officers in the Texas prison system reported that only 9 percent of officers agreed that rape in prison was a “rare” occurrence, while 87 percent disagreed. These findings are all the more notable when one considers that the question was limited to instances of “rape” — not sexual abuse in general — a term that many people interpret narrowly (typically believing that rape only occurs where physical force is used).
A Prisoner’s View
A veteran of the Ohio prison system recently contacted me, describing his own prison experiences. Unsurprisingly, his view of the prison system differed considerably from Wilkinson’s.
This ex-prisoner, who I’ll call R.B., said that because of his youth, small stature, and non-violent nature, he was targeted for sexual abuse immediately.
R.B. didn’t know how to react to the harassment. “I didn’t know,” he said, “that the only response that might have saved me from what I was headed for would have been for me to start fighting physically with anyone who questioned my manhood.”
With no protection from guards, R.B. was raped by two inmates. This initial rape led to a series of sexually abusive relationships–relationships that he endured as an alternative to repeated rapes. But, he explained, “I never told on anyone and I think that in the end I got along better because of my silence. I’ve known others who got much worse than me.”
While R.B.’s silence may have helped him–no prisoner wants to be labeled a “snitch”–it also protected the prison system. It allowed prison authorities to claim that rape was rare, an unusual occurrence, an aberration. It allowed them to pretend that the abuse was not the predictable result of their negligence.
It is high time for this silence to end. Indeed, as the Reverend Dwight would tell us, it’s more than a century overdue.
JOANNE MARINER is a human rights attorney and regular CounterPunch contributor. She is the author of No Escape: Male Rape in US Prisons published by Human Rights Watch. Her previous articles on prison rape may be found in the FindLaw archive. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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