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“Prison rape occupies a fairly odd space in our culture,” wrote Ezra Klein, 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. Why, then, are we not more outraged by atrocities here in our own country? Our reactions to the problem range from smirking indifference to embarrassed silence. But how can we be indifferent and silent when, as reports by the National Prison Rape Commission continue to show, 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 rapes reported in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York combined. Three years later a survey by the U.S. Department of Justice found that more than 60,000 inmates claimed to have been sexually victimized by prison guards or other inmates during the previous twelve months.

As reports suggest, prison gangs target first-time and non-violent offenders for sexual servitude. Once an inmate is forced into a sexually submissive role (he becomes a “punk”), the gangs treat him as chattel. While prison guards increasingly 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.

While men tend to be violated by their fellow inmates, female prisoners tend to be raped and assaulted by correctional facility 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 only compounds the prisoners’ problems.

During his first term as 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 have helped shine a light on the dark corners of our correctional system.

While such laws are a useful beginning, 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 and broadly accepted. Television and film frequently make jokes about sexual assault in prison. A few years ago, John Sebelius, 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 governor’s spokesmen said both parents “are very proud of their son John’s creativity and talent.” Would the governor have expressed the same pride if her son designed a game about the rape of women?

How odd indeed that we joke about acts we would denounce if they occurred in other lands. The fact that so many Americans are appalled and angered by 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 penal system. Concern for human rights must extend beyond both the water’s edge and the prison door.

Joe Carter is web editor of First Things . His previous articles for “On the Square” can be found here .


Ezra Klein, Prison rape isn’t a punch line
National Prison Rape Elimination Commission Report

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