NY Review of Books: Prison rape is constant and mainly done by the guards

The March 24 issue of The New York Review of Books has a stunning article on the frequency of prison rape, and on Eric Holder’s DOJ dragging its feet in correcting the problem. That’s Barack Obama’s Eric Holder’s DOJ.

The article starts with a story (my emphasis throughout):

Back in 1998, Jan Lastocy was serving time for attempted embezzlement in a Michigan prison. Her job was working at a warehouse for a nearby men’s prison. She got along well with two of the corrections officers who supervised her, but she thought the third was creepy. “He was always talking about how much power he had,” she said, “how he liked being able to write someone a ticket just for looking at him funny.” Then, one day, he raped her.

Jan wanted to tell someone, but the warden had made it clear that she would always believe an officer’s word over an inmate’s, and didn’t like “troublemakers.” If Jan had gone to the officers she trusted, they would have had to repeat her story to the same warden. Jan was only a few months away from release to a halfway house. She was desperate to get out of prison, to return to her husband and children. So she kept quiet—and the officer raped her again, and again. There were plenty of secluded places in the huge warehouse, behind piles of crates or in the freezer. Three or four times a week he would assault her, from June all the way through December, and the whole time she was too terrified to report the attacks. Later, she would be tormented by guilt for not speaking out, because the same officer went on to rape other women at the prison.

The authors hit all the bases. For example, how frequent is prison rape?

How many people are really victimized every year? Recent BJS studies using a “snapshot” technique have found that, of those incarcerated on the days the surveys were administered, about 90,000 had been abused in the previous year, but as we have argued previously, [2] those numbers were also misleadingly low. Finally, in January, the Justice Department published its first plausible estimates. In 2008, it now says, more than 216,600 people were sexually abused in prisons and jails and, in the case of at least 17,100 of them, in juvenile detention. Overall, that’s almost six hundred people a day—twenty-five an hour.

Who are the rapists? Mostly, it’s the people with the power:

Overall, most victims were abused not by other inmates but, like Jan, by corrections staff: agents of our government, paid with our taxes, whose job it is to keep inmates safe.

And Holder is dragging his feet in multiple ways. For example:

In 2003, seeking to address this disgraceful situation, both chambers of Congress unanimously passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), a law that created a commission to study best practices and come up with national standards for preventing, detecting, and responding to the problem. This commission spent years consulting with corrections officials and other experts. Finally, in June 2009, it delivered its recommendations to Attorney General Eric Holder, who by law then had twelve months to revise them before formally issuing standards that would be nationally binding.

He missed that deadline. The estimate of 216,600 inmates sexually abused in a year comes from a draft of the proposed final standards, which Holder has only now published for public comment—a step that is still far from the last. (The public comment period will run until April 4, 2011. People wishing to comment on the Justice Department’s proposals can learn how on our organization’s website, www.justdetention.org.) Moreover, the standards that the department has proposed, taken all together, fall far short of the commission’s recommendations.

The article is, as I said, stunning; filled with numbers and damning data.

I’ll just add this. In popular culture, the notion that if you go to prison you meet “Bubba” — the (darkly hued) prisoner-next-door who takes “care” of you — is ha-ha funny, a cruel joke for the comedy club circuit. And behind that is the widely held notion that prison rape is just part of the gig, part of what you get. Wrong.

(1) Prison rape is torture, or as the article says, “a human rights” violation. The judge doesn’t sentence people to “three years of rape, with one year off for lying about it.” Everyone who laughs at this kind of “joke” is a vicarious participant in the cruelty. Everyone.

(2) Rape by the powerful is systematically protected by the institution. In the same way that cops who commit police brutality are systematically protected by the “code of silence” in every police organization, prison employees who abuse are protected. The article details in how many ways that works.

As a society, we’re both as good as our aspirations and ideals and as bad as our behavior. This is another face of torture in America.


Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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