“Prison rape occupies a fairly odd space in our culture,” wrote Ezra Klein in an L.A. Times op-ed last year , bringing to the fore a subject that is often ignored. “It is, all at once, a cherished source of humor, a tacitly accepted form of punishment, and a broadly understood human rights abuse.”
We are justifiably outraged by the human rights abuses occurring in foreign lands. So why aren’t we more outraged by the atrocities here in our own country? Our reactions to the problem tends to range from smirking indifference to embarrassed silence. Yet as a recently released report by the National Prison Rape Commission notes, rape and other forms of sexual assault are becoming endemic to our prison system.
In 2004 the corrections industry estimated that 12,000 rapes occurred per year—more than the annual number of reported rapes in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York combined. In a 2007 survey by the U.S. Department of Justice, though, more than 60,000 inmates claimed to have been sexually victimized by prison guards or other inmates during the previous twelve months.
First-time and non-violent offenders are often targeted by prison gangs for sexual servitude. Once an inmate is forced into sexually submissive role, becomes a “punk,” the gangs treat him as chattel. While prison guards turn a blind eye, the gangs use these men as sexual slaves.
Although the majority of these inmates are eventually returned back into the general public, their sentence could turn into a death penalty. HIV, tuberculosis, and hepatitis C are up to ten times more prevalent in correctional institutions than in the outside population. The repeated abuse these inmates receive makes it almost inevitable that they will be exposed to one of these fatal diseases.
In contrast, when women are raped or assaulted in prison, it is usually by correctional employees. According to Lara Stemple, executive director of Stop Prisoner Rape, in some prisons up to twenty-seven percent of female inmates are sexually abused. This also leads to a shockingly high rate of prison pregnancy, which merely compounds the problems for the prisoners.
During his first term President George W. Bush signed into law the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which calls for the gathering of national statistics, the development of guidelines for states about how to address prisoner rape, the creation of a review panel to hold annual hearings, and the provision of grants to states to combat the problem. After decades of ignoring sexual torture and abuse, the hearings and reports—including the one released yesterday—have helped shine a light on the dark corners that had been hidden.
The law is a start but what is needed more than any legislation is a change in attitude by the American public. While jokes about conventional rape are always considered in bad taste, humor about prison rape is common. Television and film frequently make jokes about sexual assault in prison. And last year John Sebelius, the son of Kathleen Sebelius, former Kansas governor and current Secretary of Health and Human Services, created a board game called “Don’t Drop the Soap.” When the game was released the spokesmen for the governor said both parents “are very proud of their son John’s creativity and talent.”
How odd that we make jokes about actions that we would denounce if they occurred in other lands. The fact that so many Americans are appalled and angered by the human rights abuses in countries like Syria, Iran, and China speaks well of our nation. But we must hold our own country to the same standards. We can’t look away from the sexual torture, assault, slavery, and abuses that are rampant in our own system. Concern for human right must extend beyond both the water’s edge and the prison doors.