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.