“A few years back, two cousins I knew from back in Sumter come in on the same day. One of them was out in the yard in his first couple days, and a wolf come up to him and pinched him in the ass. Well, he turned right around and socked him in the mouth, never got bothered after that. That night, I walk by his cousin's cell to see him crying, just got raped by four black guys. 'I'm a punk now' he told me. Not yet, I told him, you need to get a piece of metal and just stab the first one them you see, and they'll know you ain't a punk. Guards won't do nothing if they know you retaliating. Well, he never did nothing, and he was a punk after that, got it from them all the time.”
(Anonymous Prisoner, December 2008)
This anecdote, recounted by a South Carolina prisoner in 2008, illustrates a barbarous and widespread aspect of American culture: inmate on inmate sexual assault. Prison rape is a horrifying reality of the American correctional system with multifaceted causes, including a broken prison culture and the tacit acceptance of the practice within our society.
To be designated a “punk”, like the unfortunate cousin in this prisoner's story, can mean an unalterable placement at the bottom rung of inmate hierarchy and sentence-long pattern of sexual assault or coerced sex. At any point during their incarceration, but likely at the start, an inmate may be tested by another inmate, and their response will set the pattern for the remainder of their sentence. This “prison code” dictates that an inmate must either respond violently to a confrontation, or greatly increase their chance of becoming regular victims of assault. For an inmate serving even a moderately long sentence, violence becomes their only acceptable strategy to avoid predators. Even a person with zero inclination towards violence stands a good chance of becoming violent within this culture, and these patterns can continue after their release.
Prison rape is not a recent phenomenon, but in fact has been an aspect of the American correctional system since its inception. Joseph F. Fishman, a federal investigator in the early twentieth century, toured over 1,500 U.S. Prisons and documented a widespread culture of prison rape. Fishman discovered a “prison code” in which corrections officials ignored sexual abuses, predators went unpunished, and victims were discouraged from reporting the attacks to prison officials.
Acceptable statistics on prison rape are difficult to obtain. Due to this culture of victim repression, it is evident that the prevalence of rape in prison is underreported. In addition to this, a diversity of methodologies in the existing empirical literature create an inconsistent set of prevalence rates. However, even with these limitations, conservative reported rates indicate that up to 21% of inmates in American prisons are sexually assaulted at least once during their incarceration.
There is a dangerous assumption within the correctional administration and collective American conscience that prison rape is the result of homosexuality among incarcerated populations. This results in inaction and apathy from correctional officers. One study found that 46% of correctional officers thought that those inmates involved in prison sex deserved to be assaulted, on the basis of their sexuality. In fact, 90% of inmates identify as heterosexual. Paradoxically, those inmates who commit violent acts of sexual assault identify most closely with heterosexual masculinity, while the victim of anal rape is reduced to the political role of the female or homosexual. Those “punks” who refuse to respond to predators with violence are the least masculine and most despised subset of the prison population. Rather than sexual gratification, prison rape is about power and control, the subversion of weaker men by the dominant prison class.
A more basic cause of prison rape is simply overcrowding. Claustrophobic living spaces and overtaxed correctional staff result in more instances of coerced sex. The bright spot in illuminating this contributing factor is the possibility for policy decisions that reduce prison populations, and therefore help reduce prison rape. Among the reasons that our prison populations have increased are determinant sentencing (or mandatory minimums), “3 strike” rules, and the war on drugs.
That one fifth of all prisoners are subjected to brutal sexual assault is horrifying in itself, however, there are also broad reaching implications of this issue in larger society. Prison rape increases crime and recidivism, spreads harmful diseases, and undermines the basic values of our justice system.
Crime and mental illness are intrinsically linked, and prisoners who are psychologically damaged during their incarceration are more likely to perpetrate crime once released. Rape causes more psychological harm than other types of violence. Being the victim of rape is likely to increase the rate and severity of future violent acts an inmate commits, as well as increase racial hostility.
Racial gangs are rampant in prison, and sexual assault is often racial in nature. Reflecting a racial power structure that is the inverse of U.S. society, due to the over representation of African-Americans and Hispanics in prison, prison rape is often perpetrated by African-Americans onto whites. As a result, inmates who entered prison without racial prejudice develop strong animosity towards the race of their assaulter.
After natural causes, AIDS causes the most deaths in prison inmates, and rape increases the likelihood of an inmate contracting the HIV virus. Due to medical treatment needed for the mental health, venereal diseases, and traumatic injuries suffered by rapists and victims, prison rape greatly increases the costs of incarceration. Given the increased incidence of violent crime perpetrated by the victims of rape once released, including sexual assault, its also logical to conclude that prison rate leads to higher incidence of HIV and other sexually-transmitted diseases in the outside population.
Prison rape also undermines the validity of our legal system. The 8th Amendment guarantees freedom from cruel or unusual punishment. Clearly, rape would apply. As near twenty percent of inmates are raped, one in every five people sentenced to prison time receives an additional sentence of violent sexual abuse. It's unlikely that a jury would sentence a defendant to rape, and if they did it would be unacceptable on constitutional grounds.
Unfortunately, courts are ready to accept the inevitability of prison rape despite its undermining their sentences. In Chandler v. Jones, a judge dismissed the lawsuit of a rape victim against the prison staff, exonerating the staff by noting that “sexual harassment of inmates in prison would appear to be a fact of life.”
A major barrier to eliminating prison rape is the tacit acceptance average citizens have of the practice. As a culture, we practice retributive justice, and place little value on the rehabilitation of criminals. Many Americans feel that victims of prison rape deserve it, that is part of their punishment, and perhaps an effective deterrent. Examples abound in popular culture, to the point of being cliché. Movies such as Dirty Work and Office Space make light of prison rape, while TV shows like Oz depict it graphically. Although eventually pulled as a response to public criticism, for a time 7UP ran an advertisement with a comedic depiction of prison rape at its core.
Although activist groups, such as Stop Prison Rape (spr.org) have existed for some time, prison rape elimination has been marked by government inactivity. In 2003, Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), and then President Bush signed it into law. Essentially a tool for understanding rather than eliminating prison rape, the bill provided for $60 million for a two-year survey of the prevalence of the problem, and additionally for the creation of panels to suggest solutions. In a 2003 editorial in Slate Magazine, Robert Weisberg and David Mills argued that the PREA is an ineffective piece of legislation, as it offers no new or unifying methodologies for studying the prevalence of prison rape, and essentially will only document a problem that most already acknowledge exists. The studies results indicated that 4.5% of prisoners reporting being raped, a number which could be argued is well below actual results, when one considers the underreporting of prison rape.
Prison rape reaches far beyond the concrete and barbed-wiring of American prisons. It is rooted in overcrowded prisons, where ineffectual staff participate in a prison culture that values only power obtained through violence. First-time offenders are the most likely to victimized, initiating them into a pattern of violence and psychopathology that they carry back with them upon release. Medical, mental health, and recidivism costs related to prison rape burden the American taxpayers. HIV, AIDS, and other sexually transmitted diseases spread from within the prison walls to the outside world. The practice adds an extra, hidden punishment to the sentences of the most vulnerable criminals, undermining the validity of our justice system.
To move past this, we must move beyond the simple numbers game of the PREA and take a serious look at the values that inform our ideas about crime and rehabilitation. If Dostoyevsky is correct in judging the true character of our civilization by entering our prisons, then we are failing miserably- our system of retributive justice would show us to be a cold, vengeful society. A start in terms of policy is simply to put less people in prison. Overcrowding is a serious indicator of prison rape, and prison culture creates violent sociopaths out of non-violent first time offenders. There are other options available, especially for those with substance-abuse related crimes. The next step is to examine our prisons closely and make the administrators who run them accountable, not just to the bottom line of operational costs, but to the quality of life of inmates. Our legal system needs to embrace its constitutional roots and uphold the 8th amendment rights of inmates, accepting rape as a part of everyday prison life is not acceptable. Most important to a new approach, based on restorative justice and rehabilitation, is that it must begin with an examination of basic American cultural values, and we must make the leap to valuing a person's dignity and humanity even though they have committed a crime.