Americans' Complicity in the Prison Rape Crisis
Americans' Complicity in the Prison Rape Crisis
By Arjun Sethi / america.aljazeera.com

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.

3.5 ·
1
What's Next
Trending Today
Rap News Special Edition: Hillary Clinton Vs Donald Trump
7 min · 21,704 views today · Hello world. RAP NEWS is back for a special episode on the 2016 USA Election mayhem, feat. Hillary Clinton vs Donald Trump + a touch of Jill Stein & Gary Johnson. This one's...
When You Kill Ten Million Africans You Aren't Called 'Hitler'
Liam O'Ceallaigh · 13,204 views today · Take a look at this picture. Do you know who it is? Most people haven’t heard of him. But you should have. When you see his face or hear his name you should get as sick in...
Ten Ways We Misunderstand Children
Jan Hunt · 8,540 views today · 1. We expect children to be able to do things before they are ready. We ask an infant to keep quiet. We ask a 2-year-old to sit still. We ask a 3-year-old to clean his room...
The Culture of Maximum Harm
Daniel Quinn · 5,952 views today · People have lived many different ways on this planet, but about ten thousand years ago there appeared one people who believed everyone in the world should live a single...
What It Really Means to Hold Space for Someone
Heather Plett · 4,702 views today · How to be there for the people who need you most
Prince Ea Just Put The School System on Trial and Found it Guilty of Killing Free Thought
6 min · 3,365 views today · Albert Einstien once said "Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid". Today Prince...
The Little Engine That Couldn't: How We're Preparing Ourselves and Our Children for Extinction
Daniel Quinn · 3,285 views today · In a recent semi-documentary film called Garbage, a toxic waste disposal engineer was asked how we can stop engulfing the world in our poisons. His answer was, "We'd have to...
The Left Deserves Better Than Jill Stein
Kate Aronoff · 3,026 views today · Stein’s Green Party run doesn’t offer a plan to win, or to build power. The Left is capable of so much more.
The International Criminal Court May Start Prosecuting People Who Commit Crimes Against the Environment
Tara Smith · 2,854 views today · The International Criminal Court is not known for prosecuting people responsible for huge oil slicks, chopping down protected rainforests or contaminating pristine land. But...
Humanity's Greatest Challenges Aren't Technical, They're Human
8 min · 2,700 views today · Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is incomplete as we commonly know it. Later in his life, Maslow wrote about a stage beyond self-actualization. Nichol Brandford explains how to...
Debt, Inequality and the Logic of Financial Violence
David Graeber · 2,319 views today · Five years after Occupy, organizer and anthropologist David Graeber speaks to ROAR about the power of finance, the history of inequality and the legacy of the movement.
The Journey From Syria (2016)
71 min · 2,136 views today · Reporter Matthew Cassel spent a year documenting the journey of Syrian jeweler Aboud Shalhoub as he travels from Turkey to Greece, and through Eastern Europe to the Netherlands...
This Satirical Trump Vs. Bernie Debate Is Both Hilarious and Highly Disturbing
44 min · 1,556 views today · Comedians James Adomian (Bernie Sanders) and Anthony Atamanuik (Donald Trump) bring two of the most controversial candidates in history, head-to-head, or rather bald-to-toupee...
Kids Killed by Guns: America's Daily Nightmare
3 min · 1,422 views today · On an average day in America, seven children and teenagers will be shot dead.Gary Younge tells the stories of the lives lost on one random day - 23 November 2013. Ten children...
How You Can Support Standing Rock
Thane Maxwell · 1,307 views today · This is your pipeline battle too. Whatever you have to offer, we need it. Wherever you are, take one step deeper. Find your voice. Find your own front lines.
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 1,238 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Incredible Photographs and Witness Statements from Charlotte and Baton Rouge Protests
Mankaprr Conteh · 1,104 views today · On September 20, a black father named Keith Lamont Scott was fatally shot by an officer of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. It is not clear if he was armed...
Schooling the World (2010)
66 min · 929 views today · If you wanted to change an ancient culture in a generation, how would you do it? You would change the way it educates its children. The U.S. Government knew this in the 19th...
Olympian John Carlos on the Power of Protest
3 min · 919 views today · 1968 Olympic athlete John Carlos protested racial inequality by raising his fist in a Black Power salute on the medal stand. He has some advice for athletes like Colin...
Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed (The Real Reason For The Forty-Hour Workweek)
David Cain · 913 views today · Well I’m in the working world again. I’ve found myself a well-paying gig in the engineering industry, and life finally feels like it’s returning to normal after my nine months...
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
Americans' Complicity in the Prison Rape Crisis