Americans' Complicity in the Prison Rape Crisis
Americans' Complicity in the Prison Rape Crisis
By Arjun Sethi / america.aljazeera.com
May 7, 2014

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
Trending Today
Why It's Crucial for Women to Heal the Mother Wound
Bethany Webster · 17,701 views today · The issue at the core of women’s empowerment is the mother wound
Before He Was Assassinated, MLK Jr. Was Advocating For An End To Income Inequality
10 min · 13,473 views today · We can honor MLK Jr. by pursuing the causes he was advocating for before he was killed.  ​​ Part 2: The Basic Income, A New Human Right (3 minutes) MLK's idea of a basic...
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 6,934 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Watch How Europeans Carved Up African Land They Never Owned
56 min · 5,697 views today · Watch how Europeans gave away African land they never owned, then expressed anger when Africans resisted. The film is called Africa: A Voyage of Discovery, Episode 6: The...
One "Piece of the Oppressor" That I Have Discovered Within Myself
Tim Hjersted · 3,653 views today · One "piece of the oppressor" that I have found in myself during my inner activist journeys is my use of shame as a method of engaging with the world's problems. Having learned...
The Corporation (2003)
145 min · 2,572 views today · The Corporation is today's dominant institution, creating great wealth but also great harm. This 26 award-winning documentary examines the nature, evolution, impacts and future...
#ReclaimMLK Seeks to Combat the Sanitizing of Martin Luther King Jr.'s Legacy
Danielle C. Belton · 2,441 views today · Martin Luther King Jr. had more than “a dream,” but you might not notice that on Monday during observances for his birthday. Somewhere between his assassination and today...
What Martin Luther King Jr. Can Teach Us about Nonviolence
John Dear · 2,289 views today · I've been reflecting on the principles of nonviolence that Martin Luther King Jr. learned during the historic yearlong bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala. After Rosa Parks refused...
Coping With Narcissistic Personality Disorder in the White House
N Ziehl · 1,326 views today · I want to talk a little about narcissistic personality disorder. I’ve unfortunately had a great deal of experience with it, and I’m feeling badly for those of you who are...
Dinosaur explains Trump policies better than Trump!
8 min · 1,102 views today · Donald Trump is actually the corporate triceratops, Mr. Richfield, from the 90's TV show sitcom, "Dinosaurs". 
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 1,036 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
22 Documentaries That Tell the Truth About How Government Really Works
Tim Hjersted · 391 views today · And 6 that show how people are responding.
The Comprehensive Activist Guide to Dismantling Neoliberalism
Drew Serres · 384 views today · “The creation of today’s market society was not the result of a sequence of spontaneous events but rather of state interference and violence.” – Naomi Klein in The Shock...
90 Inspiring and Visionary Films That Will Change How You See the World in Profound Ways
Tim Hjersted · 358 views today · The world today is in crisis. Everybody knows that. But what is driving this crisis? It's a story, a story that is destroying the world. It's a story about our relationship to...
The Invention of Capitalism: How a Self-Sufficient Peasantry was Whipped Into Industrial Wage Slaves
Yasha Levine · 353 views today · “…everyone but an idiot knows that the lower classes must be kept poor, or they will never be industrious.” —Arthur Young; 1771 Our popular economic wisdom says that...
Positive Thinking in a Dark Age: A Guide to Gracefully Losing Faith in a Collapsing Dominant Culture
Jim Tull · 329 views today · I recall a Buddhist parable involving a stick that appears from a distance to be a snake, causing fear to rise in the perceiver. As the perception shifts upon closer...
This Woman Gets No Applause...Why? They Are Too Creeped Out...
7 min · 300 views today · Think you aren't being fooled by advertising tricks? Take a look at this so-called expert revealing food marketing's secret weapon. No amount of marketing makes factory farming...
The Top 100 Documentaries We Can Use to Change the World
Films For Action · 296 views today · A more beautiful, just and sustainable world is possible. Take this library and use it to inspire global change!
The White Man in That Photo
Riccardo Gazzaniga · 274 views today · Sometimes photographs deceive. Take this one, for example. It represents John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s rebellious gesture the day they won medals for the 200 meters at the...
Stunning Photos By Alexander Semenov Showcase The Alien Beauty Of Jellyfish
Earth Porm · 274 views today · Jellyfish appear like beautiful aliens in Alexander Semenov’s photography, calling a new attraction to a magical species of marine life. Alexander Semenov is a marine...
Load More
What's Next
Like us on Facebook?
Americans' Complicity in the Prison Rape Crisis