Last month, I wrote a post about the enormous problem of prison rape in the U.S. and the complacency of both the public and the officials in charge of ensuring it doesn’t happen. The Houston Chronicle has just recently profiled the problem itself as pertaining to Texas, and the situation in the state is extraordinarily dire and apparently the worst in the nation:
Each week, the staff of the prison watchdog group Just Detention International receives about 30 letters from inmates who say they’ve been sexually assaulted in prisons across the country.
More than a quarter of those letters come from one state: Texas.
Sexual abuse is a problem in prisons from Rikers Island to Albany. But even when adjusted for the number inmates in a given prison system, Texas still stands out as the state where sexual assault in prison is most prevalent.
Five of the 10 prisons with the highest rates of sexual abuse in the country are in Texas. That includes the top two, Estelle Unit and Clements Unit.
The alarming rank of the Estelle Unit, on FM 3478 in Huntsville, came after the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics surveyed inmates in hundreds of state and federal prisons, as well as county lockups, for the new law.
Nationwide, the rate of inmates reporting sexual victimization within a prior 12-month period was 4.5 percent. At Estelle, it was 15.7 percent.
Four other Texas prisons were in the top 10, including the Clements Unit in Amarillo, the Allred Unit near Wichita Falls, the Mountain View Unit near Gatesville, and the Coffield Unit near Tennessee Colony. Those prisons had rates of abuse from 9.3 to 13.9 percent.
Considering that 4.5 percent of inmates being assaulted within the past 12 months is already a staggering and hugely unacceptable figure, those prisons with rates that soar so high above this average are clearly doing something wrong. And since, as discussed in the last post, a large majority of assaults are committed not by fellow inmates but by prison guards, there’s also likely a whole lot more going on than bad policy.
On the surface, it seems that the state has taken some positive steps towards prevention and accountability. But it also seems that such measures may be little more than public relations efforts, both because of the high rates of assault still occurring and because officials are still making excuses and engaging in rape myths:
Texas officials say that the rates of abuse reflected in that report may have been artificially inflated by the report’s methodology, which recorded inmates’ complaints without attempting to verify their validity.
State prison personnel say they’ve already made progress in educating prisons’ employees and inmates alike about the need to combat sexual abuse and the options that are available to them if they’ve already been attacked.
Texas is the only state in the country to have a special prosecution unit that specializes in crimes committed in prisons. And the state has implemented the Safe Prisons Program, designed to educate inmates about sexual assault and separate likely abusers from potential victims.
“Texas is actually at the forefront of trying to stop sexual violence in prisons,” prosecutor Gina DeBottis said.
If officials wanted to argue that their programs have been so successful that rates of victims reporting sexual assault are just much, much higher than in other states, I’d be incredibly dubious of their claims, but at least the stance could be considered somewhat defensible. Instead, they seem to have opted rather disgracefully for a position that looks an awful lot like the old rape apologist standby “lying bitches lie about rape, because they’re filthy bitch liars.”
The idea that reports of sexual violence are just so much higher in Texas because prisoners in that state are not only making up stories, but doing so uniquely and en masse, is more than just ludicrous. It’s also grossly irresponsible and serves no purpose but to shame victims and cast a skeptical light on the stories of all sexual assault survivors, for the sole purpose of really poorly defending the corrections system that is causing these assaults in the first place.
That these statements are what Texas officials chose to release very sadly shows that, unsurprisingly, they are more concerned with protecting their own reputations than they are with protecting the human rights of those who are in their care and at their mercy. A responsible, measured response would have involved an admission that what the state is currently doing is clearly not working, the pledge to do something different, and an outline of what steps would be taken to determine what that something is and implement it. Instead, it’s the same old story: excuses, denials, and minimization.
And the depressing fact of the matter is that these numbers are useless if officials aren’t willing to act on them, or the public doesn’t care enough to make them act.
As a final note, I want to touch on this short section of the article:
Not all sex between corrections officers and inmates is coerced; 6 percent of Clements inmates reported consensual sex with staff. But even if an inmate is willing to have sex with a corrections officer, it is illegal.
Because of guards’ position of power over their charges, prisoners cannot legally consent to sex with corrections officers. In Texas, corrections officers can be — and DeBottis says often are — prosecuted for any sexual contact with an inmate, including kissing.
There is excellent reason for these laws to be in place, and “consensual” is not exactly the right word for these encounters. Firstly, a lot of rapes committed through coercion, pressure, and power differentials are not commonly seen as rape, even by the victims. That doesn’t mean the rape isn’t traumatizing, merely that in a society that only sees sexual contact obtained through physical force as assault (and even then still only sometimes), the words to describe these experiences often aren’t in victims’ vocabularies. As one such victim, though not in a prison setting, the words certainly weren’t in mine.
Secondly, even if the prisoners described here genuinely desired sexual contact with the guards — and I do not deny that this is possible — the guards who agreed to such contact were still committing an act of abuse. We are talking about prisoners. And regardless of whether or not there is good reason for these prisoners to be prisoners, the fact remains that these guards are their captors. In such a position of extreme and consequential power difference, a prisoner can experience genuine desire for sexual contact, but cannot meaningfully consent to it and all that it entails. And a guard can reciprocate such desire without acting on it, as a matter not only of law but of ethics. The alternate act is an abuse of power. And abuse of power, as is right there in the name, is abuse. Abuse of power enacted sexually is also necessarily sexual abuse. Period.