Civil Liberties

Rape Behind Bars

Cell block sexual abuse


Prison rape occupies a peculiar place in the penal system. Some institutions try to fight it, while others make few such efforts. At times, it's discussed as though it's an unofficial part of the system: one last incentive to obey the law, in case the prospect of sustained isolation and discipline isn't enough. Within the prisons, it's a means of domination as well as gratification: Inmate rape is not merely an individual crime, but an instrument in establishing power relations behind bars.

Statistics on prison rape are spotty, with most states not even bothering to collect data on it. One study, investigating seven prisons in four states, appeared in The Prison Journal in December 2000; 21 percent of the inmates surveyed said they had been raped at least once during their confinement. A year later, Human Rights Watch revealed an internal survey from one state (left unidentified) in which "line officers—those charged with the direct supervision of inmates—estimated that roughly one-fifth of all prisoners were being coerced into participation in inmate-on-inmate sex." (Higher-ranking officials gave the lower but still disturbing estimate that an eighth of all prisoners are raped, while the inmates themselves suggested that the proper figure is a third.)

Now a left/right coalition has assembled behind H.R. 1707, the Prison Rape Reduction Act of 2003. Co-sponsored by Reps. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.), the bill would conduct more complete research on the problem and would "provide information, resources, recommendations, and funding to protect individuals from prison rape." Its supporters range from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to Prison Fellowship Ministries, a conservative Christian group run by repentant Watergate conspirator Chuck Colson.

There is some debate over where the money involved should come from. Susan Herman, executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime, has wondered in print "which states or entities would lose funds to accommodate the funding increases for those that cooperate and make progress in addressing prison rape." Herman suggests that it would be simpler to give them money previously earmarked for those prisons less willing to cooperate. Even with that caveat, though, she and her group strongly support the bill.

Instead, opposition has come from the Department of Justice. National Review Editor Rich Lowry reports that some lawyers there "worry that the bill trespasses on federalism principles," an implausible objection for legislation that does not override state or local authorities and aims only to enforce existing laws. Still, Wolf tells Lowry that "I've had low-level, behind-the-scenes opposition from Justice. We would have passed the bill last year if it hadn't been for some people in the Justice Department."