Everybody's Favorite Human Rights Abuse

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This 2001 Human Rights Watch report on prison rape is getting renewed attention 'round the blogs, thanks to a push from Ezra "ask me about Pandagon" Klein. He spotlights a particularly brutal excerpt from the report, a man who was "raped so many times I have no more feelings physically."

The crime this man committed for us to throw him into a jail where we know he'll be brutally assaulted, raped, and possibly contract a terminal immune system disease? Drinking and driving.

We spend a fair amount of time talking about detainee treatment and Guantanamo. But there is no greater, or more common, human rights abuses in America than those occurring in our overcrowded, constantly expanding, jails.

This is true; Reason has covered it before, twice in 2003 (read Jesse Walker here and Julian Sanchez here). Back then Congress was passed, and President Bush was signing, the Prison Rape Elimination Act. And the issue then was whether the federal government could impose some reform or solution on the states. Libertarians who supported the Act were challenged by a fresh young go-getter named Radley Balko, then writing freelance for TechCentralStation.

To be fair, the Prison Rape Elimination Act doesn't explicitly make prison rape a federal crime. Rather, it declares that the right to be free from prison rape is colorable enough to warrant federal attention. It sets up a federal bureaucracy to look into the matter, and provides grants to the states to fight it. And, as some have pointed out, the federal government already gives the states significant funding to run their prison systems.

But aren't both of these merely additional reasons to oppose the act? How many times has a federal panel, investigative board or bureaucracy set up to fight a problem ever actually solved the problem? Or even reduced it? If the law wasn't written with the teeth it needs to actually put a dent in the frequency of prison rape, why should we be funding it in the first place?

We were funding it because the shame of prison rape had finally boiled over to the point where people wanted to feel like they were "doing something" about it. Having "done something" about it, we are back to the norm of wanting to beat up bad guys and lock people in prison. Sean Hannity, who ruthlessly mocked Abner Louima after he was sodomized by New York City police,* has two TV shows. Bill Lockyer, who gleefully talked about Ken Lay getting raped in prison, left the office of California attorney general… and became California treasurer. Here's his 2010 campaign site. Smugness about prison rape is to looking "tough on crime" as smugness about torture is to looking "tough on terror." It is easy, and there are no repercussions.

*Not technically "prison rape," of course, but part of the continuum.

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  1. Hey, maybe the Democrats can run on an “anti-rape” campaign.

  2. Prison rape has become a useful punch line, a reliable laugh-getter in cinema and sitcom alike. It has become so trivialized in this country that no one takes it seriously. Good luck changing that attitude.

  3. ed, tros,
    ROTFLMAO!
    You guys are a couple of cards!

  4. Yeah, I just don’t understand how prison rape has become a joke. Are people that fucking sick? Rape is the worst crime there is after murder…somehow, it has become a joke. It’s wretched.

  5. I don’t understand why prison guards and wardens aren’t held criminally liable in such cases. If I lock you in a cage with a tiger, I damn sure share responsibility for your being mauled.

  6. The State looks the other way when it comes to prison rape. Yet another violation of Constitutional rights (you have the right to safety in a gov’t institution [jail]). The gov’t rountinely violates all our rights (including prisoners).
    They violate the 1st Amendment by openign mail, caging demonstrators and banning books like “America Deceived” from Amazon.
    They violate the 2nd Amendment by confiscating guns during Katrina.
    They violate the 4th Amendment by conducting warrant-less wiretaps.
    They violate the 5th and 6th Amendment by suspending habeas corpus.
    They violate the 8th Amendment by torturing.
    They violate the entire Constitution by starting 2 illegal wars based on lies and on behalf of a foriegn gov’t.
    Nobody cares about prisoners so it is easy to violate their rights.
    Last link (unless Google Books caves to the gov’t and drops the title):
    America Deceived (book)

  7. So?the government, who runs the prison system, has acknowledged there is a problem with sexual assault and is taking steps to reduce it?

    This would not seem to be a problem to normal people

  8. I don’t understand why prison guards and wardens aren’t held criminally liable in such cases.

    Because then we’d never be able to find anybody willing to work as a prison guard or warden.

  9. Dan T.

    I think the clear implication is that they are NOT doing anything to stop it, or at least not enough to pass the smell test.

  10. This problem will never be addressed because prison rape is considered one of the things that makes prison bad enough and scary enough to deter crime.

    Too many politicians feel that without the threat of harm or rape, prison is just a big homeless shelter.

    If you think I’m exaggerating, consider the fact that the threat of being sent to a maximum-security facility instead of a minimum-security facility is a common negotiating tactic used by prosecutors. Why is this a significant threat? The distinction in priveleges is real, but relatively minor compared to the difference between imprisonment and freedom overall. The reason it’s a threat is because the implication is that “real time” includes being left at the mercy of the OTHER inmates in a maximum security facility.

  11. How thoroughly depressing. Prison/judicial reform is probably the most under reported story.

    Crimes committed in prison should be prosecuted.

    Unemployable ex-cons should not be required to pay protection money as part of parole.

    While there are benefits to the practice, the corruption associated with plea-bargaining is such that we should put a stop to it altogether.

    The attitude that the judicial system should be about vengeance has become widely accepted. This puts a perverse emphasis on punishment.

  12. Dan T.

    Read before you comment. The post is about a Human Rights Watch report from 2001 that is suddenly getting renewed attention. Weigel then references two articles that Reason published in 2003.
    A far better troll commenter would have asked if there were any reports that show whether the Prison Rape Elimination Act has done anything to in fact reduce the rate of prison rapes.

  13. You know, eliminating prison rape is expensive, because prisons are so overcrowded. Wish there was something we could do to reduce that problem, but people just won’t stop smoking pot!

    I have to admit that I sometimes find myself, with say your Dahmers, cheering on the violence inherent in the system.

  14. Fluffy’s probably on to something. But I still think the best way to end the problem of prison rape is to codify into law that the guards and wardens on duty when it happens will all be held responsible.

  15. Dan T., nobody here opposes putting an end to prison rape. What we wonder is whether “Forming a committee to issue a report and institute a program” will solve the problem.

  16. This problem will never be addressed because prison rape is considered one of the things that makes prison bad enough and scary enough to deter crime.

    Too many politicians feel that without the threat of harm or rape, prison is just a big homeless shelter.

    Agreed. The government cannot inflict cruel punishment, but it can put criminals in situations where they are likely to inflict it upon each other.

  17. Dan T., nobody here opposes putting an end to prison rape. What we wonder is whether “Forming a committee to issue a report and institute a program” will solve the problem.

    It won’t solve anything overnight, but in general I’d think that if you have a widespread problem, the idea of getting some people together to study it and try to figure out what if anything to do about it seems like a good starting point.

    But I must admit there’s also an element of the government trying to appear to be addressing a problem that it has no real intention of doing anything about.

  18. “cheering on the violence inherent in the system.”

    yeaa! yeaa! I’m being repressed!
    (with appropriate apologies and recognitions)

    Srsly. Hear Hear, Warren: “The attitude that the judicial system should be about vengeance has become widely accepted. This puts a perverse emphasis on punishment.”

  19. So, how are you going to hold them accountable? Set up a strict liability regime or will some measure of mens rea be required? Is this going to be a civil or a criminal law regime or both? Who has the burden of proof? What are the evidentiary standards going to be?

  20. A few basic facts:

    1. Prison guards are the lowest of the low in the world of law enforcement. It’s a shit job that no one would really want. As such, you tend to get some rather dim and/or unsavory characters in the role. Couple that with vigorous unions and the qualified immunity that all gubbimint employees receive, and guards become virtually untouchable.

    2. How do you effectively deter or punish a violent predator who’s already on the inside and looking at spending most of his life behind bars as it is? I assume no one here is calling for the death penalty (neither am I). Make ’em break rocks all day out in the yard so that they’re too tired at day’s end to assault each other? I’m stumped.

    3. No elected politician in this country will ever make a big deal about protecting criminals.

  21. But I still think the best way to end the problem of prison rape is to codify into law that the guards and wardens on duty when it happens will all be held responsible.

    Ideas really don’t get much dumber than this one.

    I’m not sure I want to meet the guy who is so desperate that he’s willing to take a job where he risks jail time if he can’t keep large, angry felons from attacking each other.

  22. Prison guards have been described as the scum of the earth guarding the scourge of the earth.

    And to some extent that seems to be some sort of design flaw in the human psyche. Some experiments have shown that college students set up as ‘guards’ with power over other students who were ‘prisoners’ rather quickly dropped into depraved mistreatment of their charges.

  23. And to Radley’s point in 2003, that there aren’t enough teeth in the PRRA, I would bet that it would be unpassable in that form. I think that right now there just isn’t enough publicity or caring out there to get a law with teeth passed. So a federal oversight board that comes up with some credible numbers might just help. At least it makes for some more FOIA fodder on the subject for people writing articles.

    Might still not help, but it may actually be a good first step.

  24. Sounds like a good idea for a TV show.

  25. Dan T:

    There’s a difference between being unable to stop the practice prison rape and implicitly or even explicitly encouraging it (which, more likely than not, is a major part of why it’s allowed to happen)

  26. ChrisO,
    Regarding #2, why is rape a problem in some prison systems but not all?
    Regarding #3, good point, don’t even bother with my first question.

  27. What would a law with teeth look like?

  28. So, how are you going to hold them accountable? Set up a strict liability regime or will some measure of mens rea be required? Is this going to be a civil or a criminal law regime or both? Who has the burden of proof? What are the evidentiary standards going to be?

    You make a rule that anyone who is raped gets out of prison immediately. No parole, no registry, no nonsense of any kind.

    Then the guards will instantly start doing their jobs like they are supposed to.

  29. Dan T:

    There’s a difference between being unable to stop the practice prison rape and implicitly or even explicitly encouraging it (which, more likely than not, is a major part of why it’s allowed to happen)

    Maybe, but I imagine that any guard who is found to explicitly encourage sexual assaults probably could be held liable for that anyway. What Jennifer’s talking about is that guards should be punished if they don’t stop such assaults from happening entirely. I ask again, who would accept that kind of job?

  30. Oh, and, yeah: lots of cctv.

    If the guy is lying about the rape just to get out, then the guards can disprove the alleged rape with the cctv.

    If there is no cctv footage, then the allegedly rape d00d walks.

  31. You make a rule that anyone who is raped gets out of prison immediately. No parole, no registry, no nonsense of any kind.

    Who under a life sentence would not sign up to be raped?

  32. Oops! *”raped”*

  33. highnumber,

    Yeah, that would likely incentivize rape.

  34. What Jennifer’s talking about is that guards should be punished if they don’t stop such assaults from happening entirely. I ask again, who would accept that kind of job?

    The type of people who aren’t afraid of the notion of “accountability.” If you’re afraid of being held accountable, then you have no damned business in any sort of job wherein you wield actual power over another human being.

  35. What would a law with teeth look like?

    The written form would look like The Monster Book of Monsters from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

  36. The only measure that seems likely to work is prisoner segregation. Obviously our prisoner population would have to be much smaller for that to be practical (which is probably a good idea), and prisoner isolation raises all sorts of other issues, especially concerning isolated prisoners going batshit insane without human contact.

  37. Who under a life sentence would not sign up to be raped?

    Then the guards had better be vigilant.

  38. ChrisO,

    The new prisons for maximum security types are completely compartmentalized. They pour, etc. the cell and put it in place and then build the prison around the cell. It is actually pretty cool technology, etc. wise.

  39. Oh, yeah, and the rapist loses his chance of ever getting out. that would reduce co-operation.

  40. The type of people who aren’t afraid of the notion of “accountability.” If you’re afraid of being held accountable, then you have no damned business in any sort of job wherein you wield actual power over another human being.

    Jennifer, as much as I’d like to agree with you, that is just startlingly naive. We don’t even hold cops accountable, and prison guards are the guys and gals who are too stupid to make it as cops.

    An interesting notion: might the problem be that prison guards don’t have enough authority? I doubt it personally, but I’ll bet that in other, less “enlightened” countries, that prison rape is less of an issue.

  41. Dave W.,

    And if the rapist is already a lifer? A lifer looking for favors for getting through life in prison.

  42. And if the rapist is already a lifer? A lifer looking for favors for getting through life in prison.

    Then the guards would be incentivized to guard those cases pretty closely.

    Death penalty for prison rapists might also help.

  43. Grotius, is there a single prison system in the country where no prisoners at all share cells? Most prisons have isolation wards, but that is considered a form of punishment.

    Again, this is all mostly academic, since few people give a shit about prisoners.

  44. ChrisO,

    That is the goal of the new prisons. To have each inmate in a cell by themselves. They may even have their own showers.

  45. This where I recommend a two books:

    Michel Foucault, To Discipline And Punish

    The Oxford History of the Prison

  46. The type of people who aren’t afraid of the notion of “accountability.” If you’re afraid of being held accountable, then you have no damned business in any sort of job wherein you wield actual power over another human being.

    You failed the laugh test with this one. I don’t think we want anybody stupid enough to accept those job terms to wield power over another human either.

  47. “…the Prison Rape Elimination Act.”

    There you are. If you make a law against it, people will stop; problem solved.

    Oh, wait- in the world outside of Congress…
    I think we can assume there are plenty of laws currently on the books which could be effectively used to prosecute both types of predators: inmates and staff. There might be a significant decline in these incidents if the guards were in real jeopardy of being shifted to the other side of those bars. But are these cases investigated and prosecuted? If not, why not?

  48. We don’t even hold cops accountable, and prison guards are the guys and gals who are too stupid to make it as cops.

    The fact that we don’t hold cops accountable is itself a problem to be solved, not an excuse to allow another problem.

    When I was a teacher, if I left my classroom and some kids got into a fight while I was gone I damn sure would have been held accountable. And my classroom, unlike a prison cell, wasn’t even locked from the outside–a kid who was attacked could actually escape his attacker.

  49. There are indeed prisons where inmates have no contact. Don’t laugh, but there was a pretty interesting Bill Kurtis special on A&E a few years ago that (try to hear his voice reading this) delved into the world of…the Supermax.

  50. Another thing that would help is to impose a segregation system wherein non-violent criminals are NOT locked together with violent criminals. It wouldn’t entirely solve the problem, but it would help.

  51. A solution with a much more immediate impact would be to stop imprisoning so many people for committing victimless so-called crimes; i.e. stop arresting people for using drugs.

  52. Technology people. I think its fair to say prisoners have no right to privacy except in certain cases (consultation with a lawyer). So camera the place up. Especially the showers. And lets stop with the polorization here. The guards are not all corrupt morons. They’re just doing all they can with a shit job and they’ve become pragmatic about it. Given the resources an average prison has it is only possible to insure one thing happens — keeping the inmates in the prison. They don’t have the manpower or technology to make sure no one gets raped in the common areas. And the prisoners are smart about it. They know exactly when to shank and when not to. Or at least that’s what I’ve learned from Court TV, the interweb and that one cousin my friend knows.

  53. Just make prisons co-ed, then male prisoners wouldn’t have to be raped.

    There is way too little suffering going on in women prisons. It’s just a big day-care center. 🙂

  54. Another thing that would help is to impose a segregation system wherein non-violent criminals are NOT locked together with violent criminals. It wouldn’t entirely solve the problem, but it would help.

    That would be a good start. That would also allow more resources to go into segregating the violent criminals more completely from each other. I’m sure some systems do this already, and of course the feds operate lower security prisons that effectively segregate the violent inmates from the white collar criminals.

  55. If a prison goes too far in the direction of isolation, the inmates tend to go insane. However, given adequate design, it is possible to greatly limit the ooportunity for violent assualts, while allowing enough communication to preventing the onset of insanity.

  56. Sheesh, sorry for the multiple typos….

  57. Wasn’t there a court case a few years ago where a guy argued that the liklihood of prison rape made his punishment cruel and unusual punishment for the crime committed? Did I halucinate that? If not, how did it turn out?

  58. I skimmed the entire article you linked to Dave and I couldn’t find the ruthlessly mocked part. Not saying it isn’t there, but that is a long, long article that reads more like a hit piece on Hannity and Colmes, particularly on Colmes.

    I’m particularly interested in that because it is a very serious accusation.

  59. But Hannity really distinguished himself with his crusading efforts to defend the police against charges of brutality. When Haitian immigrant Abner Louima accused New York City police officers of sodomizing and badly injuring him with a wooden rod in 1997, Hannity used his WABC show for a vicious counter-offensive targeting the victim.

    I think the link was just an excuse to dis Hannity.

  60. I am LOL, what a great email address, true too.

    Thanks, don’t know why I couldn’t find it.

    Jesus Chrysler, that’s really sick.

  61. Personally, I think prison brutality is a huge problem. Nobody gives a shit about it either. That’s because everyone from the guards to John Q figures the inmates are just criminals and deserve whatever happens to them.

  62. I don’t know if this fits here, but here’s an interesting anecdote:

    I met a guy who was in federal prison for a few years. His crime? Mostly hanging with the wrong crowd(gangs) and riding along while his friend(not him) robbed a store. He got like 3 or 4 years.

    Anyway, he said there was a rumor that Charles Manson, the big, bad evil killer, routinely gets raped up the ass with a broom pole. He thought it was amusing.

    He was a really nice kid (the guy I met) and now is heavily involved with religion and does bible studies. He said prison made him turn his life around. Not sure if the fear of rape or violence had anything to do with that. 🙂 He was a big, corpulent kid, anyway.

  63. violent crime should be a death sentence. You get one appeal in 6 weeks and if convicted again, you die at noon the next saturday. Period. All other criminal offences get three years hard labor. period. Second offense is death. period. All public assistance benefits cease upon conviction to all immediate family members of convicted felons . period. This will put an end to the prison overcrowding problem and the repeat offender problem.

  64. Great plan, brotherben!
    Would you consider moving to another country, please?

  65. I have an idea, how about we sepeate each person into his/her own room. We then (to really protect them) only let them out of the cell one hour per day. To help deter violence we can limit their tellevision viewing to meditation, self-help, or religious programing.

  66. I looked into moving to North Korea but I am here illegaly and am having difficulty getting a passport. TeeHee

  67. “I think the link was just an excuse to dis Hannity.”

    Yeah, Hannity shouldn’t be dissed like that. He should be anally raped with a jackhammer.

  68. To answer Joe’s question, an effective law would make it easier to get a divorce from your prison husband or wife. Split the assets (one soap for you, one shiv for me) and assign the top bunk on a rotating basis. If guys had to pay cigarette carton alimony to their ex-bitches, there’d be a lot less monkey business.

  69. “Yeah, Hannity shouldn’t be dissed like that. He should be anally raped with a jackhammer.”

    Wow! That’s a mental image I did NOT need!

    Somebody could photoshop that up and sell T-shirts!

  70. It’s not that the general public doesn’t care about rape, it’s that they don’t care about rape of *men*. I see articles all the time about the horrors of rape in women’s prisons and how WE MUST DO SOMETHING, even though rape in women’s prisons is rare and every case seems to make the headlines (unlike cases of men being raped).

  71. “Death penalty for prison rapists might also help.”

    Yes, it might; it’s a bit extreme though. There are much worse crimes than rape; maiming and murder are certainly worse.
    Rather than the death penalty for convicts who rape another in prison, I might be willing to support permanently removing most of the length of their cocks along with their balls. That might be some incentive to behave themselves.

  72. “Death penalty for prison rapists might also help.”

    Yes, it might; it’s a bit extreme though.

    Clarification: I am only suggesting this in conjunction with letting the rape victim out of prison. It is only fair to take the crime that seriously if we take the victim’s hurt that seriously. Package deal.

  73. I like the CCD camera idea. I wonder why we are on our way to having CCD’s on every street corner to watch us but don’t have a CCD record of everything that goes on in prison? (Could it be that the people running the prisons balk at the idea?)

    I think a digital video of a guy raping a guy could be used to show that the rapist is a fag. (Sorry not PC but most straight men don’t want to be known as fags.) Warn the inmates that any rape caught on camera will be released to the public, with the victim blocked from view of course. The inmate’s friends and family back home will now know that he is a fag. I bet a person in prison for life would cease raping others.

  74. One thing that rarely gets talked about in these threads about prison rape: What the hell makes a heterosexual male suddenly become cool with the idea of sticking his penis inside another man? In other words, why does prison rape happen in the first place?

    I’m a certifiably horny mofo, but I can’t imagine ever being desperate enough to do that even with a willing participant.

    Does anyone know of sources that address this aspect of the whole thing? I know somebody might pipe up and say, “Well, rape is not about sex, it’s about power,” but I’m not entirely convinced of that. It might result in power issues, but it certainly seems to start with some asshole wanting to get his rocks off. Otherwise, why not just exert “power” by beating your victim upside the head?

  75. No, I Don’t Feel Like Googling

    That’s kind of what I was saying. I think the guy doing the raping should be considered a fag. Put this way I wonder if prison rape is as common as we are led to belive.

  76. When I was a teacher, if I left my classroom and some kids got into a fight while I was gone I damn sure would have been held accountable. And my classroom, unlike a prison cell, wasn’t even locked from the outside–a kid who was attacked could actually escape his attacker.

    Okay, so Jennifer thinks that keeping a room full of children from attacking each other is a task somewhere equal to that of overseeing hardened adult criminals. This strikes me as showing a total lack of perspective.

  77. “In other words, why does prison rape happen in the first place?”

    i’m pretty sure that the whole isolation thing has something to do with it. it shows up – far less violently – in the literature on all-male sea voyages or overland expeditions going back to the 17th century and before.

    to say “but i can’t imagine ever doing that” is kind of obvious. very few people who live through extraordinary stresses actually imagine their behavior ahead of time.

  78. Jennifer thinks that keeping a room full of children from attacking each other is a task somewhere equal to that of overseeing hardened adult criminals.

    No, Dan, the point was that if I left my teenaged charges alone I’d be held responsible for whatever bad things happened in my absence. And if official policy is to not even leave teenagers alone without someone overseeing what they do every minunte, then such a policy makes even more sense for hardened criminals.

  79. but I can’t imagine ever being desperate enough to do that even with a willing participant.

    It’s not about the enjoyment of the sex act, it’s about the enjoyment of forcing another human being into submission.

  80. Otherwise, why not just exert “power” by beating your victim upside the head?

    That’s doesn’t humiliate and stigmatize the victim.

    The SS could simply shoot Jews on site, there was no need to round them up and enslave them and then gas them if the goal was to exterminate them. Gassing Jews at least eliminated the bloody messes, so perhaps Nazis were neat freaks. Anal, in today’s parlance.

  81. I think distributing a video of the rapist attacking his male victim to the outside world would humiliate and stigmatize the rapest. Just imagine:

    Outside prison:
    1’st buddy: Man, Bob is awesome. He has got to be the most bad ass dude ever! I bet he is running the prison.
    2nd buddy: Bob is a big faggot. Check out the prisoner video on You-Tube.
    1st buddy: Man your right, Bob is a no good fag. Let’s write him a letter and let him know what a poof he is.

    I don’t need to say what Bob’s family would think of it.

    Put CCD camera’s all around the prison.

  82. “It’s not about the enjoyment of the sex act, it’s about the enjoyment of forcing another human being into submission.”

    why can’t it be both?

    i’ve never understood this particular line of reasoning, though i understand why it was necessary at one point (if you’re trying to convince people that rape indeed exists outside of “she was asking for it”).

  83. I’ve never understood that line of reasoning either.

    I have no doubt that some rapist, somewhere, is motivated foremost by a desire to “force another human being into submission.” But the notion that rape in general is not driven foremost by basic sexual urges seems quite wrongheaded. I mean… it’s rape.

    To your previous point about isolation and its “extraordinary stresses”: I know there’s historical precedent for these sorts of acts among otherwise heterosexual males. But I still don’t get it. Tobias Beecher above noted rape’s ability to humiliate and stigmatize its victims. Yes, of course. But by what process do the instigators in these cases overcome one of the most notoriously humiliating stigma for heterosexual males — the idea of being gay?

    In line with Bobster’s crudely sketched “fags” post, I don’t understand why that’s not a more formidable psychological obstacle for these rapists (especially given the Mr. Tough Man types who ostensibly populate a prison).

    Equally baffling is the way people seem to take that aspect of it for granted. It’s like this unspoken, “Oh, that’s just what guys do.” They do?

    I recall in my early teens becoming aware of this conventional wisdom that rape was common in prisons, and thinking, Wow, there must be a lot of gay inmates. That obviously was a naive conclusion, but honestly, nothing in the intervening years has further illuminated the topic for me. I feel like I’m missing something that everybody else intuitively grasps, because I don’t see “everybody else” puzzling over it as I have here. At mind-numbing length.

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