No Criminal Justice Reform - Without Prison Reform

Isn't it high time to put an end to prison rape?

As of late, there’s been a lot “bipartisan” celebration over the passage of some “criminal justice reform” legislation. As to whether the specifics of the latter are commendatory or not, this is grist for another mill.

The point here, however, is that any kind of criminal justice reform is woefully inadequate as long as it omits sweeping reform of America’s prison system, a vast industry that rewards its agents, i.e. wardens and their corrections officers, for allowing dangerous convicts to prey upon weaker convicts.

Contrary to fashionable drivel, a prison sentence is essentially punitive, and most definitely not rehabilitative. The language of “rehabilitation” belongs to a fundamentally different vocabulary of discourse than that of “punishment.”

Insofar as it is the remedy for those who are sick or injured, rehabilitation is of a piece with the category or mode of medical health, broadly speaking, of science. 

In stark contrast, punishment, because it is a response to conduct over which the person being punished is assumed to have responsibility and which is recognized as being worthy of punishment, belongs to the mode of morality.  

Convicted criminals deserve prison as punishment for their crimes.

This being said, the punishment must be lawful. This means that convicted criminals who are sent to prison deserve to be punished. They do not deserve to be abused and terrorized and tormented, neither by prison authorities nor by other inmates.  

Yet stronger, more dangerous and seasoned convicts routinely prey upon weaker and less experienced criminals. Not only can the latter count upon being the victims of extortion and assault; they are as well at risk of being rapedespecially if they are white.

As to the frequency with which prison rape occurs, due to the reluctance of victims to share their experience, this is something that’s difficult to determine.  There are, though, other facts that Human Rights Watch (HRW)—no “law and order,” right-wing conservative organization—was able to determine in its extensive study, “No Escape: Male Rape in Prisons.”  According to the report: 

“Specifically, prisoners fitting any part of the following description are more likely to be targeted: young, small in size, physically weak, white, gay, first offender, possessing ‘feminine’ characteristics such as long hair or a high voice; being unassertive, unaggressive, shy, intellectual, not street-smart, or ‘passive’; or having been convicted of sexual abuse against a minor.”

The report notes the racial dynamics of prison rape:

“Inter-racial sexual abuse is common only to the extent that it involves white non-Hispanic prisoners being abused by African-Americans and Hispanics.”

In other words, “African-American and Hispanic inmates are much less frequently abused by members of other racial or ethnic groups; instead, sexual abuse tends to occur only within these groups.”

Human Rights Watch corroborates other studies that document “the prevalence of black on white sexual aggression in prison.” Its research, comprised as it is of “correspondence[s] and interviews with white, black, and Hispanic inmates,” persuaded its investigators that “white inmates are disproportionately targeted for abuse.”

“Although many whites reported being raped by white inmates,” the report continues, “black on white abuse appears to be more common.” And to “a less extent, non-Hispanic whites also reported being victimized by Hispanic inmates.”

Members of all racial groups are at risk of being raped while incarcerated, it’s true. However, it’s something approximating an ironclad rule that black and brown inmates can be “turned out” only their co-ethnics:

“Some inmates told Human Rights Watch that…’only a black can turn out (rape) a black and only a chicano can turn out a chicano.’ Breaking this rule by sexually abusing someone of another race or ethnicity, with the exception of a white inmate, could lead to racial or ethnic unrest, as other members of the victim’s group would retaliate against the perpetrator’s group.”

Human Rights Watch quotes some prisoners who have been victimized. One person is a young man whose mother contacted HRW in 1998 upon learning that her son, a friend of his who was only 16 at the time, and a third inmate had all been raped in the same cellblock in an adult prison. 

The woman’s son eventually was able to respond to HRW’s attempts to contact him: “Sorry for taking so long to write, but I have been having a lot of trouble. I’m 16teen,” the adolescent explained, and “I got into a fight and I got a broke bone in my arm.  It don’t hurt that bad.” 

This, however, was not the “trouble” to which the boy refers. He proceeds to elaborate on the series of events that kept him from replying sooner. “I have had 2 people try to rape me.” Although the teenager attempted to get placed in Protective Custody, he was refused.

The teen—who HRW refers to as “R.P.”—wrote a subsequent letter:

“When I was in B-Pod I had 3 dude’s coming to me that said they was the only thing that was keeping me from getting raped, and they wanted to jack off and look at me. The pod I’m in now I had 2 people come to me and put an ink pen to my neck and tell me that if I didn’t let them jack off on me they were going to rape me.”

R.P. noted that he told the correction officers on guard, “but they didn’t do anything about it.”

Prisoners from other facilities confirmed that R.P.’s circumstances were typical. One convict in Florida wrote:

“Mostly young youthful Boy’s are raped because of their youth and tenderness, and smooth skin that in the mind of the one duing the raping he think of the smooth skin and picture a woman….Prisoners even fight each other over a youth without the young man knowing anything about it to see whom will have the Boy first as his property.” 

Said an inmate in Nebraska:

“The kids I know of here are kept in the hospital part of the prison until they turn 16.  Then they are placed in general population….At age 16, they are just thrown to the wolves, so to speak, in population. I have not heard of one making it more than a week in population without being ‘laid.’”

An inmate in Utah wrote that when he was first incarcerated, “I was just 18 years of age, about 90 pounds. I did nine years from March 1983 to November 1991.  In that 9 years I was raped several times.”

This prisoner said that while he “never told on anyone for it,” he “did ask the officer for protective custody.” Yet he was only “sent to another part of the prison” where he “was raped again.”  Subsequently, he was moved to but another location of the prison, where he was raped yet one more time.

And this was the cycle that repeated itself.

It’s nothing less than an unqualified disgrace, an outrage, that the prisons of America—America!—are cauldrons of the violence essentially controlled by the most hardened and ruthless of convicted criminals.

It is as well disgraceful that American citizens not only tolerate this state of affairs, but in effect sanction it. 

Time constraints here preclude consideration of proposals for prison reform, but this is a must: Prisoners must be rendered powerless. It’s imperative that every predatory inclination be frustrated while they are incarcerated.


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