The Right Kind of No-Tolerance Policy: Will Obama Get A Halo For Prison Rape Reform?

If backing gay marriage earns a rainbow halo, stopping prison rape at least warrants this….

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.



Graphic: marsabsent

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19 thoughts on “The Right Kind of No-Tolerance Policy: Will Obama Get A Halo For Prison Rape Reform?

  1. Agreed: Good for him.

    I’ve written on this before: The essential necessity of running any sort of prison is keeping everything–EVERYTHING–under control at all times. That’s the only way to protect the safety of both inmates and the employees who work there. Ironically, the nature of the beast is that complete control, even “enough control” is actually impossible.

    I hope, having admittedly not read the new rules myself, that ANY form of assault is addressed, not just sexual.


  2. While this won’t win Obama many votes, it does seem his civil liberties record, though atrocious, is improving a bit. I put this in the same category as the AG backing video recording police, though significantly more important and harder politically.

  3. 10% is the average – though it might even be a little less.

    For Trans and Intersex women, it’s 60%. Rate of HIV infection due to gang rape in jail is about 20%. It would be higher, but for many, it’s not the first time in jail, and they were HIV positive before they went in the second time.

    Male-to-female transgender individuals are at special risk. Dean Spade, founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, testified before the Commission that one of his transgender clients was deliberately placed in a cell with a convicted sex offender to be raped. The assaults continued for more than 24 hours, and her injuries were so severe that she had to be hospitalized.

    In many, perhaps even most, jails, nothing like this would ever happen. But in the places it does, it’s pretty bad, and with the tacit approval of Authority. Having some “comfort women” to allocate to favoured prisoners as rewards helps keep the lid on things..

    • Recent example from Louisiana:

      On February 27 S.T. was gang raped for approximately 40 minutes by 5 men who held her hostage while armed with knives. The gang-rape was witnessed by other prisoners. She was forcibly penetrated orally and anally. When she sought medical attention two days later, sheriff’s deputies refused her requests.

      Eventually she was taken to see a nurse. When she reported the rape, the nurse offered no response, seeming not to believe her. She was then placed on suicide watch and returned to a male dorm in an unsupervised cell.

      On March 7 another prisoner raped her…while she was supposedly still on suicide watch. She has since been raped multiple times over the last several weeks. Additionally her attacker has beaten her severely enough to have broken one of her rear molars.

      Last weekend T.S. was strangled and attacked once again and she filed for sick call, saying “help me, I’m being raped.” The nurse walked to her cell, looked in, and began to walk away, but T.S. confronted her and begged her not to leave, claiming she would be killed in the nurse did nothing to protect her. T.S. was transported to University Hospital. A rape kit was performed and she was tested for HIV. When she was booked into the jail, she was HIV negative. She is now positive.

      On March 26 deputies attempted to return her to the same tier that housed her attacker. When her attacker saw her, he threatened to kill her in front of the deputies. She refused to enter the tier and the deputies moved her to another tier.

      As she was being moved, her attacker screamed that he knew where they were moving her to and he would send someone to get her. She is now housed on a tier where the cell doors do not lock, where violence is widespread, and where deputies do not supervise or protect the individuals housed there.

    • Example from California:

      According to Judge Richman’s opinion, Giraldo self-identifies as a “male-to-female transgender person.” When she was taken into custody at North Kern State Prison, she was evaluated for placement for the duration of her sentence. She was classified as a Level III inmate with 36 points, which gave her a “primary placement recommendation” to be placed at California Medical Facility or California Men’s Colony, institutions with experience in handling transsexual inmates, where they “are relatively safer… than at other state prisons.” Despite this recommendation, she was sent to Folsom and put into general male population.

      “Within a week of her assignment to FSP, an inmate employed as a lieutenant’s clerk requested that plaintiff be assigned as his cellmate,” wrote Richman,” which request was granted. Beginning almost immediately, and lasting through late January, the cellmate ‘sexually harassed, assaulted, raped and threatened’ plaintiff on a daily basis.” Then this first cellmate introduced plaintiff to “his friend, another inmate, who in late January requested that plaintiff be transferred to his cell, which request was also granted.” Just weeks later, this second inmate “began raping and beating her, again daily.” Although Giraldo reported this abuse to prison officials and begged to be transferred to a different cell, her requests were ignored for several weeks.

      Finally, after suffering a rape and attack with a box-cutter by her cellmate on March 12, 2006, she was moved to “segregated housing.” This was just days after she had told a correctional counselor about the abuse to which she was being subjected, and pleaded to be moved to a different cell, pointing out that her original classification meant she was not supposed to have been assigned to Folsom. The counselor’s reaction was to tell her to be “tough and strong,” and the counselor discouraged her from taking any further action, returning her to the cell. Just two days before the final incident, she had also spoken with a medical employee, who noted the conversation in her file but took no steps to report the matter to authorities, because “I don’t want to get him into trouble.”

      Giraldo was moved to a unit for psychologically troubled inmates, but lived in constant fear that she might be sent back to general population and placed with another abusive cellmate.

      — Legal analysis at of Giraldo v. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 2008 Westlaw 4891584 (Cal. App. 1st Dist., Nov. 14, 2008).

  4. Naturally, I don’t think anything like this should be tolerated. However, I very much doubt that it is policy in many prisons- official or unofficial- to turn a blind eye. There’s only so much you can do to control the general population of a large facility… except to keep them locked up. Therefore, I consider this a largely empty gesture on Obama’s part that DID have some political basis. After all, the prisons are loaded with his supporters.

    I would have preferred if he had set his sights on bolstering the Center For Missing and Exploited Children, thus helping protect an innocent (though non-voting) segment of the population that needs protection more than any others.

    • However, I very much doubt that it is policy in many prisons- official or unofficial- to turn a blind eye.

      Why not?

      There’s no penalty for doing so, and as you said, their resources are limited. Look at the court transcripts, it’s been seriously argued that they have a duty of care not to be “recklessly indifferent”, but mere neglect doesn’t qualify under current law. Cruel and Unusual treatment is permissible, only Cruel and Unusual punishment is not.

      • I can only speak for the military prisons I worked in. There are a lot of lockups around the country, Zoe. They’re not all top notch or efficiently run, as we both know. But allowing this sort of thing also contributes to a dangerous situation with the prisoner population that no good warden would want to engender.

                    • Alright, let’s put it this way. I’m a trained and experienced correctional specialist. As such, I think my opinion on this subject deserves a little respect. You’re arguing theory based on what you conceive to be ethics. You’re entitled to that opinion. I, however, am merely offering an opinion of practicality based on my own work (directly) in three confinement facilities, plus other correctional functions.

                    • SMP,

                      I am not discounting your opinion, just like I don’t discount your opinion on history. The problem is when your opinion requires unwarranted assumptions along with your expertise. In places where there are rational, high skilled wardens, the federal governments urgings on prison rape are going to have little affect, as I defer to you that it should already be handled as much as possible.

                    • Indeed, it DOES come down to professionalism… as in all such matters. No argument there. I’m just questioning this law’s effectiveness, its constitutionality and its true motivations.

  5. I don’t see how a funding penalty, as a consequence of failure to address the problem, will make things better. Increasing the hardships of life in the penal colony for the perpetrators (like, isolating them more rigorously) seems to hold more promise – but would require more, not less, funding. This just isn’t a problem that’s had money thrown at it. But it is a problem, and I do wish that even the most heinous criminals could endure their punishments without threat of, and suffering of, such assaults.

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