On June 23rd, the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission (NPREC) issued its long awaited report on the state of rape in America’s prisons. This august group’s findings were duly noted in the flood of daily media and, like so many other well-intentioned blue-ribbon commission reports, will be quickly forgotten. However, while unstated, its primary finding is evident to all: the American prison system is the domestic corollary to the global war on terror.
Rape is sexual violence, a personal and social ritual of patriarchy. Men most often rape women and girls, reminding them that physical terror and sexual violation enforce the structure of power. Male rape of men, like their rape of females, serves to harm the victim, both to physically terrorize and to psychologically shame. Male rape of other males asserters the darkest dimension of masculinity under patriarchy.
Rape victims, both women and men, share an existential sense of violation; the victim is both physically invaded or overpowered and shamed or stigmatized. For the perpetrator, rape enables him to enforce the structure of social hierarchy and control.
Nowhere is the need to delineate the structure of power greater than the prison and the military. As Foucault made clear in “Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison,” prison is a living hell. It is a domestic war zone where, in a highly regulated social organization, a quasi-military force maintains order through terror both formal and informal. Prison rape (especially male rape) is a cousin to the rape and other forms of sexual terror practiced as a tactic by the U.S. military and intelligence operatives in the war on terror in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo. [see “Sexual Torture: What is Acknowledged and What Remains Unknown,” CounterPunch, May 15-17, 2009, and “Sexual Terrorism: The Sadistic Side of Bush’s War on Terror,” CounterPunch, May 13, 2008]
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Angela Davis astutely observed years ago that we live under the domestic tyranny of a prison-industrial complex. It is cousin to the military-industrial complex first identified by Eisenhower a half-century ago and that still drives American global imperialism. Like Rome of old, America is a garrison state.
According to the NPREC study, more than 7.3 million people are captives of the American “correctional facilities or supervised” by the criminal justice system. Among these are some 2.2 million adults imprisoned throughout the country and an addition 5.1 million adults “under correctional supervision” in federal, state and local facilities throughout the country.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) finds that, in 2006, 112,498 federal and state prisoners were women; white, blacks and Hispanic made up 40, 42 and 16 percent, respectively, of the prison population. Finally, nearly 100,000 juveniles were under confinement, more than half being 16 years or younger. [see www.nrpec.us; see also Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Prisoners in 2006”]
The report informs readers that this vast enterprise costs an estimated $68 billion annually. This apparently includes the costs involved running 146 state and federal prisons, 282 local jails and attendant services operating throughout the country. However, the figure does not appear to include the nation’s police forces, the prosecutors and the courts that operate the machinery of the prison-industrial system.
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According to the NPREC study, in 2007, “an estimated 60,500 State and Federal prisoners were sexually abused during [the previous] 12-month period.” This amounts to approximately 4.5 percent of the prison population. Buried deep within the study is one of many amazing findings:
About 2 percent of all respondents reported incidents in which the perpetrator was another prisoner; 2.9 percent reported incidents perpetrated by corrections staff. (Some respondents had been abused by both staff and other prisoners.)
This information is dropped into a long recitation of prison rape data, the commission acknowledges the ugly fact and quickly passes over it. What does it mean for a policing system when essentially 50 percent more of the reported rapes in prison are committed by trained law-enforcement officials?
Other findings are equally disturbing. For example, younger adult inmates aged 18 to 24 years were subject to nearly twice the rate of abuse as those 25 years and older (i.e., 4.6% to 2.4%). Not surprising, nearly six times more self-described homosexuals were subject to sexual violence than those claiming to be heterosexual (18.5% to 2.7%); rape among those identified as bisexual or “other orientation” fell by half (9.8% to 2.7%).
Similarly disturbing, nearly one-fifth (19.7%) of youths under 18 years in residential juvenile facilities report at least one “nonconsensual sexual contact.” Adding to the alarm, the report sites BJS data which finds that in 2006 in adult facilities “substantiated allegations” of sexual abuse stood at 2.9 per 1,000 incarcerated prisoners, while in juvenile facilities the rate of sexual abuse was 16.8 per 1,000.
In addition, the study asserts: “Simply being female is a risk factor.” It notes, “women were more likely than men to be sexually victimized (5% compared with 3%).” According to BJS data from 2005–2006, “36 percent of all victims in substantiated incidents of sexual violence were female.” It asserts: “Girls are disproportionately represented among sexual abuse victims. … And they are much more at risk of abuse by staff than by their peers.”
Who are most at risk? The report identifies them as follows:
Youth, small stature, and lack of experience in correctional facilities appear to increase the risk of sexual abuse by other prisoners. So does having a mental disability or serious mental illness.
Research on sexual abuse in correctional facilities consistently documents the vulnerability of men and women with non-heterosexual orientations and transgender individuals.
Add to these the disabled and those suffering mental illness. Prison is hell, especially for the most vulnerable.
The consequences of sexual violence in prison is staggering. It leads to profound psychological damage including, in the words of the report, “posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, fear of loud noises or sudden movements, panic attacks, and intense flashbacks to the traumatic event.” It also leads to serious internal injuries, long-term medical conditions and exposure to HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
The NPREC report provides snapshot profiles of many prisoners who were raped while incarcerated. Their stories are painful. Some were victims of one-on-one rapes, others suffered gang rapes. All paid a price, including suicide.
One of the report’s weaknesses is that it offers no discussion of the perpetrators. There are no interviews, no psychological assessments, no speculation as to what motivates these violent, angry and sometime psychopathic rapists. Because of this, a deeper question posed by rape in prison cannot be addressed: Why do perpetrators commit rape? Because the question cannot be asked, the report cannot fully address the meaning of rape in a prison. That’s why we need Foucault.
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America’s prison-industrial complex, like the health-insurance industry, is not designed to solve the problem it is ostensibly intended to address. The healthcare industry is a financial turnstile providing employment and profits to insurance companies, hospitals, doctors, pharmaceutical companies and other vendors; patient health is a means to an end. Similarly, prisons are jobs programs and tax boons to localities starving for revenue; prisoner rehabilitation is rarely in the equation.
Prisons are hellholes. Prison literature and biographical reflections, from Dickens or Solzhenitsyn, Malcolm X or Mumia Abu-Jamal, are testaments to truth telling and courage, not favorable prison conditions. As a document, the NPREC report reads like a research backgrounder for a futurist horror film. It paints a truly gruesome portrait of America’s prison conditions. Sadly, the report’s cast of characters does not include a Cagney of “Public Enemy” or a George Jackson at San Quentin or a Frank “Big Black” Smith at Attica. Without mass social unrest outside, the upheaval of the ’30s and the ‘70s, the culture inside the prison is one of victims and predators, not revolutionaries.
The NPREC report is a political document, like the 9-11 report. It focuses national attention on a truly horrific social occurrence, rape within the America’s prison system. It proposes a series of programmatic solutions to address the problem. Reading between the lines, it makes clear that the America police-justice-prison system doesn’t work. The question is simple: Will the report be buried or help end sexual violence in prison?
Much depends on how successful Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) is in getting support for (yes, you guessed it) a commission to assess the U.S. justice system and propose recommendations for its reform. Pat the pol on the back, a worthy effort that actually might be executed over the next election cycle. Unfortunately, nothing changes easily in America, especially when powerful moralistic or financial interests are at stake. Sometimes less is more: Rape might actually be reduced if the Obama Justice Department would adopt the NPREC recommendations. People’s lives are at risk.
In Dante’s medieval classic, “The Divine Comedy,” the seventh circle of hell is reserved for sodomites. They are located at the bottom-most rung of the seventh circle, below murders who kill for gain and suicides who violate the law of self-preservation. Dante, however, distinguished between those (males) who engage in homosexual acts that we might call “acts of love” and those who engage in acts of violation, pedophilia and rape. Hell is different for each.
The sexual violator lives in a hell all his (and, occasionally, her) own. He thrives in prison and the military as a guard, fellow-prisoner, soldier or interrogator. The sexual violator is an enforcer. He asserts a dying patriarchy that, sadly, finds it most meaningful expression in the sexual hellhole of the prison-industrial system, the seventh circle of 21st century hell.
DAVID ROSEN is the author of “Sex Scandals America: Politics & the Ritual of Public Shaming” (Key, 2009); he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.