Sex and power -- forces rampant in our prison system, thwarted and twisted by the jail culture. Lock up large
numbers of the same gender and the frustrated sexual energy is palpable.
Likewise, in jail everyone -- wardens, correctional officers, inmates -- wants
power, fights for it, manipulates for it, in a place where everyone is made to
feel impotent. The locked up teenagers I taught over a ten year period in an
adult county facility and about whom I write in I Don't Wish Nobody to Have
a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup, had a great image for that
lack of power: crabs in a bucket, stepping over each other, pulling down the
ones closest to the top, so nobody wins.
Sex and power, as everyone knows, are the ingredients of rape. Consequently, the prison rape numbers are high.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics 88,500 incarcerated adults were
sexually abused -- by correctional staff or other inmates -- in 2009. This
number doesn't include the kids who have been sexually victimized while locked
up, an even higher percentage.
Disturbing numbers made even more disturbing by the fact that seven years ago the George W. Bush congress (surprisingly) passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act.
It's a good bill that raised the alarm regarding widespread prison sexual assaults. It also established the
National Prison Rape Elimination Commission to investigate and make
recommendations on how best to stop prisoner sexual abuse. In June 2009 the
Commission finally released its report setting out certain reforms. However,
the Obama administration has yet to adopt those findings.
The recommendations are thorough, straightforward and sensible. Among them, instituting zero tolerance policies
of all sexual abuse. Training staff to identify potential sexual assault
situations. Teaching inmates their right to report sexual harassment without
reprisals. Screening new inmates for their risk of being sexually abused or
When I read what the Commission suggested I wondered why prisons haven't
already been taking these commonsensical, low cost measures which would have
spared thousands of men and women pain and suffering. And I wondered what this
failure said about our criminal justice system's attitude -- and our society's
attitude -- towards prison rape, and prisoners in general?
But if we really want to get at the causes of prison sexual assaults we have to dig deeper than a commissioned
The system is the problem. Our jails are run on a culture of violence. Walk
into a jail and you'll know that violence. Every day I worked in the county
jail I was hit by it. The smells of men packed into overcrowded dorms; of
exposed toilets; of rancid food. The constant din of the PA system; of the
blaring television; of officers and inmates shouting over it all. The sight of
a handcuffed inmate being dragged down the hall to the Special Housing Unit by
the black-clad emergency response team. Just another day in the county lockup.
A more subtle message of this culture of violence is the dehumanization of the
body. Sounds pretty philosophical, but in jail it translates real easy: Your
body isn't yours. You dress, undress, shower, shit under somebody's eye,
electronic or otherwise. You can be stripped down and exposed to cameras; you
can be prodded and explored -- "cavity searched" -- all at
corrections' command. My jailhouse students knew this. During one of
corrections' clampdowns on jailhouse tattoos, one of the kids, a tattoo artist,
commented, "The way police see it, when we do our shit, we're defacing
county property." When human beings are treated as commodities, sexual
assault becomes inevitable; and this inevitability fits the publics'
perception: Prison rape happens. (Yet, can you imagine the outbreak if these
attacks took place in any other public care institution?)
Prison rape can only be diminished when we change the culture of violence within our jails. It's not impossible.
It is being done in some prisons across the country where administrators such
as Sunny Schwartz in the San Francisco county jails have had the courage and
vision to implement programs in restorative justice and violence reduction
programs, for example. These approaches, when supported by administrators and uniformed
staff, have reduced sexual violence by demanding full accountability from
inmates and correctional staff alike while ensuring that each person is valued
In March, Attorney General Holder told a congressional committee that addressing prison rape "...is
something that I think needs to be done, not tomorrow, but yesterday."
Today is "yesterday." The victims of prison rape can't wait for
Orginally posted on Huffington Post