Americans' Complicity in the Prison Rape Crisis
Americans' Complicity in the Prison Rape Crisis
By Arjun Sethi /

The target of jokes and indifference, sexual assault has become part of the American prison experience

The Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, a maximum-security prison in Wetumpka, Ala., was built in 1942 to house 400 inmates. Today the facility houses more than 900 women and is the subject of a major investigation by the Department of Justice. In a report in January, the DOJ called Tutwiler a “toxic, sexualized environment,” citing a sordid history of overcrowding, poor staffing and limited oversight. More than a third of the prison staff have had sex with inmates.

Rape and sexual assault are as basic to the American prison experience as bars and bunk beds. The statistics are not entirely reliable, but in 2011 alone, the Justice Department estimates, roughly 200,000 inmates were sexually abused in detention facilities by prison staff or fellow inmates. Some were forced to perform sexual acts in exchange for sanitary supplies or to avoid punishment, while others were attacked, and submitted out of sheer powerlessness. The majority of these rape victims are men, leading some to ask whether the U.S. is the only country in the world where more men are raped than women. The prison rape epidemic is part of a broader human rights crisis. Home to less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. houses roughly a quarter of the world’s prisoners. Many are nonviolent offenders and suffer from drug addiction, mental illness or crushing poverty. 

The majority of inmates live in overcrowded prisons. In California, for example, conditions were so appalling that in 2011 the Supreme Court ruled that they amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, violating the Eighth Amendment. Dozens of prisoners shared a single toilet, suicidal inmates were held for prolonged periods in cages without toilets, and hundreds of prisoners slept in bunk beds in gymnasiums. Many state penitentiaries and federal correctional facilities face a similar crisis.

In such conditions, sexual assault isn’t necessarily foreseeable. But is it surprising? Human rights abuses left unchecked deteriorate into human rights crises.

While deplorable prison conditions have facilitated the epidemic, our indifference has sustained it, making us complicit. The bodily integrity of prisoners has become a laughing matter. Just turn on your television. Prison rape is the target of countless jokes on reality shows and late-night comedy.

Much of this is political. Prisoners are typically poor, can’t vote and have few advocates. Political power is not even within their imagination. Victims of sexual assault have even less power. The majority never report the crime for fear of retaliation or further abuse. In a world of meritorious causes and limited resources, prisoner rights often go ignored.  

The U.S. incarcerates a larger share of its black population than South Africa did at the apex of apartheid, and states spend more on prisons than on public education. 

Nor is the public a reliable ally. Although one in roughly 32 Americans will be incarcerated at some point during their lifetimes, most Americans see prison as reserved for the truly deviant. Thus, so long as crime and sexual violence takes place in prisons rather than backyards, it’s not considered a pressing problem deserving of government resources. 

As repeatedly seen during rape trials, some even shift the blame to the victims. In a cruel version of caveat emptor, aggressors defend their actions by highlighting victims’ sexual history and clothing. Prison rape is sometimes explained in a similar way: If prisoners hadn’t violated the law, they wouldn’t have been assaulted. In both cases, the victims have diminished rights and are seen as having invited the invasion.  

Fortunately, for the first time in decades, there’s real momentum for criminal justice reform. Fiscal austerity has spurred unlikely bedfellows, and “tough on crime” has given way to “smart on crime.” 

And rightly so. The U.S. incarcerates a larger share of its black population than South Africa did at the apex of apartheid, and states consistently spend more money on prisons than on public education. The moral and financial costs of mass incarceration are simply untenable.

Liberals and conservatives are now rethinking the war on drugs, advocating for shorter sentences, and considering out-of-prison penalties for nonviolent crimes. Restoring fairness and balance to the American criminal justice system is the first step to eradicating inhumanity within it.

There has been recent progress on the issue of prison rape, too. In February, the Justice Department threatened to withhold funding to states that failed to meet certain standards in detecting, preventing and responding to sexual abuse in prisons. Last month, the Department of Homeland Security finalized comprehensive guidelines to eliminate prison rape in immigration detention centers and holding facilities.

For the women of Tutwiler prison, and countless others, change can’t come soon enough. For more than a generation, we have tolerated — nay, mocked — a human rights catastrophe of our own making. It is time to marshal the necessary will and resources, and conclude this shameful story.

Arjun Sethi is a lawyer in Washington, D.C., and a frequent commentator on civil rights and social-justice-related issues. He is on the board of directors of Grassroots Leadership.

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Americans' Complicity in the Prison Rape Crisis