The Justice Department just announced the first comprehensive federal rules aimed at “zero tolerance” for sexual assaults against inmates in prisons, jails and other houses of detention. The new policy has teeth in it, decreeing that states that don’t take adequate measures to prevent sexual assault on prisoners will lose federal prison funds. This initiative was disgracefully long in coming, but begins the repair of the human rights atrocity going on in the nation’s prisons literally since the first cell door clanged shut. It is the right kind of “no-tolerance” policy, because allowing prisoners to rape other prisoners—it is estimated that at least 10% of all inmates experience sexual assault—-should never have been tolerated. That it has also been used by law enforcement and popular culture to enhance the deterrent power of imprisonment, essentially making rape a culturally and governmentally sanctioned element of the penal system, should weigh heavily on the national conscience for years to come. It was un-American, as vile a desecration of the principles of our country as torture.
It won’t, of course, because few Americans who don’t have friends and relatives in jail care what happens to prisoners, how badly they are treated or what kind of conditions they live in. As a result, President Obama won’t gain but a handful of votes and little media praise for his administration’s addressing a human rights issue that his predecessors ignored with shrugs and dragging feet. Unlike his tepid, cynical, contradictory and dragged-into-it-kicking-and-screaming endorsement of gay marriage that has no tangible effect at all, this decision won’t be trumpeted by the White House, spawn fawning Newsweek covers showing Obama in a prison-striped halo, or encourage George Clooney’s closeted gay Hollywood pals to open their checkbook. Nonetheless, it is that rarity in election year politics, an important measure that attacks a real problem intelligently and without great expense, protecting hundreds of thousands of Americans who are not a sought-after voting block, at no significant political advantage at all.
Bush didn’t do this, Clinton didn’t, nor Bush I, Reagan, the sensitive Jimmy Carter, or any other President extending backwards to George. Obama did.
Good for him.
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