There’s Rape in the Prisons — And Gambling in Rick’s Place

I tried a class action lawsuit against the District of Columbia Jail years ago, questioning (successfully) whether the conditions of overcrowding and isolation of prisoners constituted cruel and unusual punishment. Experts — John Calhoun of NIH; Robert Ardrey, author of The Territorial Imperative; psychiatrists Karl Menninger and Hans Esser; an architect and others — visited the jail and testified in the federal court that conditions at the jail were likely to cause aggression, suicide and rape. They could have been describing conditions at most prisons and jails in America, then and now.

So it comes as no surprise that Congress’s National Prison Rape Elimination Commission reported last week that over 60,000 prisoners reported they were sexually assaulted in 2007, a likely lower figure than the actual one since these horrible events are underreported for fear of reprisals and embarrassment, and often involved repeated acts of violence. The victims include women, young offenders, people in jail (not convicted but awaiting trial), and in community programs. The perpetrators are predatory fellow prisoners and exploitative correctional officers. Youngsters (under 16) and women are victims more than adults and men, and the women are more likely to be abused by staff than peers. Even immigrants in detention facilities are abused, vulnerable as they are by the remote and exploitative conditions of their detention.

The United States spends $68 billion a year on corrections, and these bestial offenses — common, not isolated — are further proof that correction is not what we accomplish. Incarceration is counterproductive in a great number of cases, and the rape of inmates is an exacerbated aspect of their adjudicated punishment. It is predictable as it is intolerable, and it is an historic feature of our overcrowded, unmonitored, often unnecessary (and very expensive) prison system.

The report to Congress notes that “sexual abuse of prisoners is as old as prisons themselves,” and everyone who knows anything about prisons is aware of the ugly phenomenon upon which this Commission reported. Press accounts of isolated incidents historically have been a regular one-day exposé.

The recent report calls for “zero tolerance” of rape, and recommends standards that would improve conditions (no pat-downs or body searches of women inmates by male guards, protective segregation of gay prisoners, better monitoring of prison activities (who monitors the monitors?), more realistic complaint mechanisms, prosecution of violations, and helpful treatment of victims. These are all obvious and sensible reforms. One wonders, Why did it take a national study to state what ought to have been so obvious? And what is the likelihood that the proposed reforms will occur? The public cares little about prisoners. Many of the offenders are the officials who would be in charge of the proposed reforms. Convicts have no political power.

One wonders what will happen after a few days of public attention to these findings. The system grinds on.

Visit www.RonaldGoldfarb.com.