Everybody's Favorite Human Rights Abuse


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.