Anyone who looks at the problem can’t react with anything other than horror. According to the Bureau of Justice Statics, over 60,000 prisoners — the great bulk of them male — fall victim to sexual abuse in prison each year. A fair number of these men are “punks” who are subject to frequent, even daily, male-on-male rape for years on end.
The federal report’s conclusions — a zero-tolerance policy, more direct monitoring, and the like — almost are all common sense. State, local, and federal governments should take immediate legislative and administrative action to implement nearly everything in the report. (Most of the practices are already commonplace in the federal and better-run state systems.) Although giving trial lawyers more business rarely makes sense, Congress may also want to reconsider laws that make it very difficult for prisoners to sue prison authorities absent concrete evidence of physical harm. It’s quite possible that many legitimate prison-rape claims get thrown out of court under current laws. And prison rape needs to stop.
But the nation’s prison-rape problems can’t go away overnight for at least two major reasons. To begin with, the racial supremacist gangs that control many prisons use rape as a tool for keeping other prisoners in line and, in some cases, prison officials may turn a blind eye towards sexual abuse when it keeps prison populations more orderly. Second, the understandable widespread social distaste for people in prison has lead to a widespread attitude that’s frankly inhumane. It is one thing to say that prison shouldn’t be fun and quite another to say that detainees “deserve” rape. Nobody does. But, somehow, prison rape remains a perfectly acceptable topic for sitcoms, widely trafficked websites, and late-night comedians.
Government runs the prisons and, in the end, government policy will have to play the dominant role in eliminating prison rape. But, to facilitate that, society also has to change and acknowledge that, even though most people in prison have done awful things, they’re still human beings and still have rights.