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Confronting prison rape

By Wendy McElroy
web posted September 22, 2003

A bright light is about to be shone on an almost unseen social problem: prison rape. On Sept. 4, President Bush signed the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which provides for an annual Department of Justice review on the rate and effects of prison rape. Why should you care?

According to Bureau of Justice Statistics, on Dec. 31, 2002, there were 2,033,331 people incarcerated in the United States. (Approximately 7 percent of those in state and federal prisons are female.)

The U.S. prison population is rising. In 1980, there were just over half a million inmates. The BJS estimates that, "If incarceration rates remain unchanged, 6.6 percent of U.S. residents born in 2001 will go to prison during their lifetime." (Other sources place that figure higher.) The chances are that someone you personally know -- and, perhaps, care about -- will become a prisoner.

Estimates on the rate of prison rape vary. In 2001, Human Rights Watch released a comprehensive report that estimated between 250,000 to 600,000 prisoners, overwhelmingly male, are raped each year.

Prison rape seems to be rising as well. Several academic studies in the '80s estimated that 7 to 15 percent of inmates were raped: a rate of 10 percent amounting to approximately 200,000 people. The apparent increase may be due to the current practice of double bunking and using dorm rooms to compensate for overcrowding.

In general, rape is under-reported and this tendency is almost certainly exacerbated in understaffed prisons where authorities can be unresponsive or hostile to complaints. In describing his ordeal to Human Rights Watch, a suicidal inmate said his appeals for help to prison authorities were fruitless, and concluded, "The opposite of compassion is not hatred, it's indifference."

And yet, the question remains, "Why should you care?"

One reason: Prisoners are human beings. Approximately half of those imprisoned today are "non-violent." Many have been arrested on drug charges or for comparatively minor offenses, such as being behind in child support payments.

The young and "unhardened" prisoners are the most vulnerable to rape. Consider Rodney Hulin, who was arrested at 16 for setting fire to a dumpster. Hulin received an eight-year sentence. After being repeatedly raped and dismissed by prison authorities, he killed himself.

Most victims survive. But as Rep. Robert C. Scott, D-Va., comments, "They leave prison much more likely to engage in crime than when they went in."  Barrett Duke -- a VP of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission that lobbied for the Prison Rape Elimination Act -- adds, "The sexual brutalization of inmates exposes men and women to punishment that is not only cruel but that also severely impedes their opportunity to rehabilitate themselves to assume lives worthy of the dignity of their humanity."

More than dignity is involved. The HIV rate in prison is at least four times that of the general public. In 2000, about 25,000 inmates had HIV. A similar situation exists with other communicable diseases, like Hepatitis C, which can be spread through certain sexual activity and has become the most common blood-borne infection in the U.S. According to the National Institute of Justice and the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, the rate of HCV infection in inmates is 9-10 times higher than in the general public.

You should care about prison rape if only for one reason: Approximately 630,000 inmates were released from prison in 2002 and became the people beside whom you may now be living and working.

There are several reasons why prison rape has been ignored for so long -- primarily, that it is an ugly problem from which it is tempting to turn away.

Prisoners also have no political clout. They do not vote or lobby which, in effect, means they have no voice. By contrast, lawmakers often gain popularity by being "hard" on crime and criminals. The hardness assumes that prisoners deserve what is coming to them, even young prisoners convicted of non-violent offenses. But no crime should be punished by rape; HIV should not be part of a judge's sentence. Rape should not be a fact of life for anyone.

Ironically, even the revolution in rape awareness in the last few decades has tended to suppress discussion of prison rape. Politically correct feminists defined rape as a crime of gender: That is, men rape women. As with other issues like domestic violence, they resist the identification of men as victims because that shifts the focus from women and brings their ideological assumptions into question. Thus, it was the "anti-feminist" Concerned Women for America, and not NOW, who lobbied for the Prison Rape Elimination Act.

The act may well be a Band-Aid placed over a gaping wound. Certainly, it does not create the sweeping reforms that would address the underlying causes of prison rape, such as overcrowding. And, without such reforms, it is unlikely that the rape-prevention training programs mandated by the act will be effective.

But it accomplishes two goals: public awareness and a message to prison officials inclined to ignore inmate violence. Society can no longer afford to ignore prison rape. It can no longer afford to define rape as a gender crime or its victims as female. To end rape, we must fight it wherever it occurs and defend whoever is being victimized.

Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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