On Prison Rape and Complacency

Empty prison cell with a single bed and no window, shown in dim lighting

Trigger Warning for descriptions of sexual violence and rape apologism.

The NY Review of Books has published an article by David Kaiser and Lovisa Stannow about the enormous problem of prison rape in the U.S. and how to adequately address it (h/t).

The authors describe in detail the sickening severity and tremendousness of the problem, and how it is only exacerbated by the apathy of those with the power to help victims. A very small excerpt (again, trigger warning):

When Laura Berry told the Arkansas corrections officer who had raped her that she thought she might be pregnant, he forced her, according to the commission’s findings, to drink turpentine and quinine, hoping that would induce an abortion. After Kenneth Young was raped at knifepoint by a cellmate in Pennsylvania, he flooded the cell to attract the attention of officers, and as punishment was put in a “dry cell” for ninety-six hours, with no access to running water, a shower, or a toilet—forced “to live in his own excrement,” as a court later put it. Alisha Brewer told our organization, JDI, that she was raped by three different corrections officers as a twenty-two-year-old prisoner in Kentucky; she reported the last two incidents, and was punished with more than four months of punitive segregation and loss of sixty days of good time on her sentence. Another prisoner who wrote to us, and who for obvious reasons prefers to remain anonymous, quoted the male officer who was abusing her: “Remember if you tell anyone anything, you’ll have to look over your shoulder for the rest of your life.” We get letters like this every day.

But perhaps their most shocking part of the article for many will be their claim that these atrocities do not need to continue:

One of the most pernicious myths about prisoner rape is that it is an inevitable part of life behind bars. This is simply wrong. As the variance in the BJS findings shows, it can be prevented. In well-run facilities across the country it is being prevented—and this shouldn’t be surprising. After all, the government has extraordinary control over the lives of those it locks up. Stopping sexual abuse in detention is a matter of using sound policies and practices, and passing laws that require them.

If we think rape is bad, one of the worst things a person could force another to endure, we should find prison rape to be especially horrific. For rape in prison involves not just rape, but also being legally kept captive either by or with your rapist(s), for an extended period of time.

Rape in prison is also a form of social discrimination and violence. In prison, as with everywhere else in the world, rapists deliberately seek out the most vulnerable potential victims, whether it be with regards to physical ability, social stature, or both. Even within prison, a place that makes all of its inhabitants marginalized, the most marginalized and the most vulnerable are still the most likely to be raped. Rape in prison is horrific violence, human rights abuse, and personal act of control, but it is also a means of reinforcing abusive social hierarchies of power.

As prison inmates are overwhelmingly and disproportionately likely to be poor, rape victims are also likely to be poor. As prison inmates are overwhelmingly disproportionately likely to be of color as opposed to white, rape victims are also disproportionately likely to be of color. As rapists attack those they perceive as the most vulnerable and least protected, rape victims are overwhelmingly disproportionately likely to be trans*, queer, people with mental health issues, and/or people with other disabilities.

In additional to being a general human rights abuse, rape in prison is a targeted human rights abuse. It’s an abuse targeted at those already most likely to be abused by social systems, hierarchies, and prejudices. It is racist, it is classist, it is misogynistic, it is transphobic, it is homophobic, and it is ableist. The refusal to do anything about it, the complicity and even encouragement from so many quarters, shows that the targeted and prejudiced nature in which these already horrific abuses are carried out is not accidental. It’s not even negligent. It’s deliberate.

While no one ever deserves to be raped, even if they are rapists themselves, and while the article rightly notes that corrections officers make up a majority of prison rapists, the fact is also that inmates convicted of violent crimes are the most likely inmates to act as rapists. And since rapists seek out the most vulnerable victims, inmates convicted of non-violent crimes are the most likely to be raped. While it would not be at all acceptable even if it was, rape also does not act as a deterrent to future crimes. It just creates victims who have nowhere to turn, no one who cares, and who are actually likely to commit more crimes upon release as a method of coping with their extraordinary trauma.

The problem is that too many people believe that rapists are the ones being raped, and too many people believe that rape is an appropriate form of punishment. The problem is that the right to not be raped is not seen as a fundamental human right. And prisoners are not seen as deserving of fundamental human rights, anyway.

The problem is also that too many people think their tax dollars are worth more than the human rights of those they see as sub-human. Because in spite of the fact that there are standards that could be put in place to reduce the rates of prison rape now, the main holdup is apparently money:

The main concern expressed by opponents of the commission’s standards is that observing them will be too expensive. One PREA provision barred the commission and the attorney general from establishing standards “that would impose substantial additional costs compared to costs currently expended by Federal, State, and local prison authorities.”

Indeed, even the authors of this piece — who overall, while being a little too apologist towards corrections officers for my taste, still appear to care about this issue vastly more than the majority of the population — take the time to carefully note:

Still, no one doubts that bringing corrections systems across the country into compliance with the standards will require money, and everyone acknowledges the importance of this consideration.

This is where it becomes time to take a cold, hard look at our priorities in life. Because, by the standard laid out here, I am officially classified as “no one,” and proudly so. Personally, I actually don’t acknowledge the importance of the money consideration, at all. I’m really spending most of my time acknowledging the importance of not giving serial rapists captive and indefinite victims.

I’m thrilled that the authors have taken the time to detail the fact that the cost of implementing theses standards is not nearly as high as many believe. Political history shows us that this is important.

But I’m also just enormously sick and tired and disgusted by the fact that everywhere I turn, this is where the conversation leads us. I’m sick and tired and disgusted by the fact that people are raping prisoners at this very moment, and cost is what we’re discussing.

I hate taxes as much as the next person — really, I can very sincerely say to you right now that I think paying taxes is not at all fun! But when we live in a society where the concern over the possibility of having to pay more in taxes takes regular and uncontested precedence over issues of social justice and even basic human rights — and do not even begin to kid yourself that we do not live in that society in the U.S. right here, right now — we have gone well and truly off the rails. We have sacrificed and abandoned basic decency. We have forgotten what humanity and empathy look like. We are a society that does not even deserve the right to call itself a society, because a society is supposed to provide some sort of collective and collaborative existence.

It has been said by countless admirable people that a society is best judged not by how it treats its most privileged members, but how it treats those who are most vulnerable. When the desires of middle class folks to have a little bit more money to buy nice things with override the right of our society’s most vulnerable members to not be serially violated and abused by the government in which we trust; when our government’s desire to not piss off the middle class folks who elect them with minor tax hikes, and to give themselves nice fat bonuses and financially prop up their friends, outweighs their duty to protect those people whose lives are in their hands; when the best we can all around do is throw up our arms and say “We’d love to do something, but it costs too much,” there is no way to judge that as anything but an absolute, utter, and disgusting failure.

We have failed, we are currently continuing to fail, and as I write this and you read this, there are women, men, and children all over this country paying for it right now.

0 thoughts on “On Prison Rape and Complacency

  1. meloukhia

    This is infuriating to me on so many levels; that cost is ever something which is “weighed” when talking about human rights makes me spitting mad.

    The prison system is so very broken on so many levels. The fact that we can’t even be arsed to take care of the people we are imprisoning makes me sick. (And I do not mean that in a metaphorical sense, I mean it makes me physically ill to know that people are incarcerated in my name and that they are subjected to horrific abuses in prison.)

    We should never be forced to demonstrate that doing the right thing would cost less than propping up the status quo. The fact that we are routinely forced to do this and our society still doesn’t do the right thing is mindboggling to me.

    I wrote my representatives after reading the Kaiser/Stannow article, because it was the only thing I could think of to do that might be in any way productive.

  2. Jenna

    One thing – I’m not sure adopting these “standards” will do much toward prevention. The prisons I have worked at were all ACA certified. The state prison system moved toward ACA accreditation, despite the cost, because it was slightly cheaper than all of the lawsuits they were losing to inmates. Now, the state can go into court and claim that they are not responsible because, on paper, they are compliant with certain standards and prevention methods. The state regularly claims that we have this preventative system in place that all the inmate has to do is notify someone that they don’t feel safe. This argument has been very persuasive in cases, limiting the state’s legal liability.

    My basic point is that even when these standards are adopted (as they have been in Texas), there’s no garauntee that they will be used to actually help the inmates because they are only adopted to decrease the legal liability of the state. The state nearly always looks good on paper whether the inmates are safe and well cared for or not.

    This is not to say that I don’t think these measures should be adopted, they should but I’m a firm believer in ensuring that they aren’t simply empty promises either. I just wanted to post because I actually work in a prison and have experience with my state’s attempt to prevent prison rape (along with extortion, gangs, drugs, cell phones, weapons, etc).

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  4. Dandelioness

    Hi Cara. I have been reading your blog regularly for some years already. This is my first comment. Usually I feel like I have nothing to add and only more to think about, but something just really struck me.

    How insane it is that costs are being used to make up excuses to not provide vulnerable people with the basic human rights they deserve. Because a lot of money is being already earned by denying people their basic human rights. Like wars for profit. Like the prison industry in the US (I am from Holland, we don’t have that here but I could see it happening the coming decade or so). Like human trafficking. Like so many other things, as you know, the list is endless…

    ‘Our’ society knows how to profit from the vulnerable AND loves to save on helping them. Isn’t that how it is?

    Money makes the world go round. Or crazy?

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