Not That It Will Do Any Good To Say So, But U.S. Acceptance of Prison Rape Is An Ethics Outrage


I keep an informal score each television season of how often one of the heroes in a cop or other law enforcement drama will pointedly tell a finally-cornered criminal that he can now look forward to being raped in prison. Of course, this is only representative of the shows I actually see. Even counting only them, however, I have heard such a speech four times in 2011. (The all-time champs in this celebration of prison rape are Dick Wolf’s Law and Order dramas.)

Think about what this means. The scriptwriters are presuming that such a forecast of impending sexual abuse will be enjoyed by the audience, a case of just desserts for the wicked. The casual acceptance of prison rape in America’s penitentiaries is a continuing scandal, and an indictment of our society’s compassion and commitment to the Constitution.

A decade ago, the Prison Journal published a study based on a survey of inmates in seven men’s prison facilities in four states. It showed that 21 percent of the inmates had experienced at least one episode of pressured or forced sexual contact since being incarcerated, and at least 7 percent had been raped in their facility. An earlier study of the Nebraska prison system showed 22 percent of male inmates reporting that they had been forced to endure sexual contact against their wills. Over 50 percent of those said they had submitted to forced anal sex at least once.

The one-fifth statistic seems to be corroborated in most studies of prison rape, although some researchers suspect that rape is under-reported. Meanwhile, some states continue to deny that rape in their prisons is anything but a rarity. What is unquestionable is that rape, when it occurs, is a shattering and horrendous experience. Gang assaults are common, with victims left seriously hurt and sometimes dead. Human Rights Watch  highlighted the case of twenty-three year old Randy Payne, incarcerated in a Texas maximum security prison  August 1994. Within a week of entering the prison, Payne was attacked by a group of an estimated twenty inmates demanding sex from the slim, attractive youth. When Payne refused, he was beaten and sexually assaulted for almost two hours; guards claimed they had not noticed anything until they found his bloody body. Payne never regained consciousness, and died of head injuries a few days later.

After Human Rights Watch presented an extensive and shocking report (“No Escape: Male Rape in U.S. Prisons.”) to Congress, the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 was passed, calling for the compilation of national prison rape statistics, annual hearings by a review panel, and the provision of grants to the states to address prison rape. It was widely seen as the first step to addressing the problem, but one of the first studies conducted under the law concluded that prison rape was rare, a controversial result that was vigorously criticized by human rights advocates. That study seems to have done the trick, however: Congress is no longer interested in the issue. Yet by most accounts the incidents of rape in prisons are rising as a direct result of over-crowding, and the phenomenon is laughed at, exploited, and otherwise used by popular culture for its apparent entertainment value.

The cold, hard fact is that most Americans don’t care what happens to convicted criminals. Even though the Constitution forbids cruel and unusual punishment, and almost no one would dispute that a penal system featuring forced homosexual rape as part of its sanctioned punishment would be unconscionable, that fact that the U.S. system subjects 20% or more of its inmates to precisely this produces  nothing but a sniff, a smile, and a cultural shrug.

What do we do about this? I have no immediate practical solution. Shortly after finishing the first draft of this post, I came across an excellent post from 2009 that was essentially the same. Yes, periodically bloggers and journalists will write about prison rape, how it is cruel and barbaric, how it spreads AIDS to lower-income communities and in the African American population, how the 2003 Act accomplished nothing and how the public’s tacit acceptance of it is a national disgrace. Then nothing happens. The courts won’t free prisoners who have been raped, and the public is unlikely to make humane treatment of convicted criminals one of their high priorities, meaning that elected officials won’t pay any attention to the problem at all.

The only hope, a slim one, is to change cultural attitudes, and here is one modest place to start the process: the entertainment media. If we can persuade producers and scriptwriters that representing prison rape as either amusing or a just punishment not only coarsens the audience but also encourages violent conduct that leads to disease and death, maybe, over time, Americans might start doing that most basic of ethical conduct: caring.

Right now, in the matter of the human rights outrage called prison rape, they just don’t give a damn.

12 thoughts on “Not That It Will Do Any Good To Say So, But U.S. Acceptance of Prison Rape Is An Ethics Outrage

  1. A question: what would be the appropriate punishment for a rapist already incarcerated? Would they spend money on DNA evidence to see if it was true? Would any system like this almost certainly end up being abused by sociopath crooks? Isn’t that true of everything?

    I just heard that Ronnie Joe Neal, who shot and killed a teacher in Texas and was on death row, horded his antidepressants and committed suicide. This really ticked me off. If we’re going to give convicts medicine, can we at least make sure they’re TAKING it? And furthermore, WHY give someone on death row antidepressants?! So they don’t feel SAD?

  2. Do prisons keep violent offenders separate from the general population? I wonder if we can’t come up with another form of punishment for non-violent offenders? Some of these people don’t belong in prison but in rehab.

    • Yes they do, in the form of having prisons with different levels of security. Violent inmates are kept in the highest-level facilities. The selection of *which* prison a convict gets sent to is part of the sentence.

      Those who are kept in the lower-security facilities are pretty much kept in line because they don’t want to get transferred up to the heavier places. Plus, the distinction between the lowest-level facilities and a typical rehab facility is nearly nil. See my second post about FCI Morgantown, WV here on EA for details.


      • Thanks Dwayne. I didn’t know how that worked.A friend thinks privately owned prisons are mostly a problem. Renting prisoners out as slave labor to big corps and such. That sounds unethical to me as well. Obviously I don’t know much about the prison system. I have a cousin who’s a Viet Nam vet who because of mental health issues shot and killed his mother,sister and nephews believing they were the enemy. This was in “75” and as far as I know he’s still at Walla Walla or dead. Somebody must have some answers. Somebody needs to care.

  3. I see it as a human failing. We *should* hope that the justice system can keep society’s lowest common denominator contained, and eventually return them to society ready to contribute. Instead, most seem to be stuck on elementary-level morality and demand “punishment for the wicked” despite the undeniable and inevitable costs that a justice system like that develops.

    It’s a shame, really – a vicious cycle of punishment for progressively worse crimes. The worst part about it is that it *feels* right to continue it… to continue to *punish* rather than to *improve*.

  4. In the 9 years I was incarcerated, I heard of 3 Rapes. Rape in prison happens but there are rules that can keep you out of trouble. We formed a group and were sanctioned by the administration. They would give us 2 hours with all incoming inmates. We would try to help with the do’s and don’ts of prison life.

    The irony of this was that I was a former sex offender. That was 30 years ago. I could handle myself in prison, but now, after 30 years the new sex offender laws (AWA and SORNA) are worse than prison. At least in prison you knew what to expect. Former sex offenders who have in many cases paid their debt and after decades of trying to rebuild their life, are now going back to prison. Losing their homes and jobs. Wives and children are being destroyed. Not from new offenses but from not being in compliance with or following over 100 pages of laws. New laws that are hard to follow. New Laws that were made retro active. I could take the shame and punishment if it were just me but it’s not. Rape in prison is not nearly as bad as the rape that society is dealing. They claim these laws are not punishment. They call a pigs ear a silk purse and I guess that makes it so!

  5. While I think some criminals deserve anything that happens to them, I don’t think prison should make you fair game to be raped and murdered. If you get five years for selling drugs, that should be your sentence–not five years, plus rape, plus a likely death–not by lethal injection or hanging, but beaten to death, or AIDS.

  6. Amazing some of the people who posted here cant be bothered to express this kind of outrage when it happens to a child at a bus-stop..Offenders and or their advocates get strangely silent on the subject of rape then, “nary a word” I believe the expression is..

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