“The extent of rape in America’s prisons is appalling. It is a scandal that people housed in the custody of the government are not safe from sexual attack. No matter how terrible the crime, the sentence should not include being raped.” – Pat Nolan, Director of CCJR
The extent of rape in America’s prisons is appalling. Conservative estimates find that one in ten inmates is raped in prison. That means that of the two million Americans behind bars today, at least 200,000 will be raped. And because 95% of prisoners will be released back into our communities eventually, it matters to all of us, too.
Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 (PREA) in an attempt to combat the prison rape epidemic. Although it has not failed completely, it has had no noticeable impact on this crisis in our prisons. After Congress passed the PREA, it took almost ten years for the Justice Department to issue its standards on how prisons should prevent, detect, and respond to sexual abuse. A couple of years later, only two states could fully comply with those standards. It’s evident that the urgency once shown to correct this problem has dissipated over the years.
Prisoners have few options when confronted with sexual abuse: they can either stay quiet and let it happen, seek protection from other inmates often at the price of being their sex slave, fight back and risk getting more time added to their sentence, or report the rape to corrections officers. This last option carries the possibility that the officers will do nothing about the reported abuse, leaving the victim in the same situation with the added complication of being a “snitch.”
When Rodney Hulin was sixteen years old, he and his brother set a dumpster on fire in their neighborhood. He was sentenced to eight years in an adult prison, where he was repeatedly beaten and raped. Despite many pleas for help from Rodney and his mother, no one in authority intervened to help him. They told him to fend for himself. Depressed and unable to face the remainder of his sentence at the mercy of sexual predators, Rodney committed suicide.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) conducted surveys in 2011-2012 and found that 72 out of every 1,000 incarcerated individuals had been sexually abused in jail or prison. In fact, a female prisoner is 30 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than a woman outside of prison.
As troubling as the proliferation of rape is, equally disturbing is the attitude of many government officials who are indifferent towards it. When asked about prison rape, former Massachusetts Department of Correction spokesman Anthony Carnevales said, “Well, that’s prison . . . I don’t know what to tell you.” In that offhand remark, he expressed what many feel in their hearts, but loathe to admit - “they deserve it.”
But does anyone deserve to be raped? Regardless of the crimes they have committed, no offender’s sentence includes being raped while in the custody of government. By its very nature, imprisonment means a loss of control over the circumstances in which inmates live. They cannot choose their “neighbors” i.e. their cellmates, arm themselves, or take any other steps to protect themselves. Because the government has total control over where and how inmates live, it is our responsibility to make sure they aren’t harmed while in our custody.