Trigger warning: discussion of prison rape
When I woke up this morning, I saw from my Twitter stream that Jerry Sandusky was found guilty on a sufficient quantity of child sex abuse charges to make it likely that he’ll go to prison. But said tweets did not contain what I’d half-dreaded they would: the inevitable prison rape comments.
Some of that is that I have good Tweeps. But when I braced myself and went looking, I didn’t see nearly as much of them as I’d feared. I’m sure they lurk in the comment threads of the newspaper sites and propagate on Facebook. Or perhaps the subject is now just under the surface, the subject of a nod and a wink and a tap alongside the nose.
Back in 2007, Patrick wrote about “the conviction that society requires extra-legal violence in order to hold together”. That’s still a good description of the role of prison rape in the popular culture. But somewhere in the last five years, that strain of discourse seems to have become muted in the political conversation**. I don’t know if I’ve learned to tune it out, or if it left the building when Bush left the White House. It always struck me as a partisan canard.
Still, the problem itself remains. Whether people joke about it or call it justice, prison rape is pervasive. There’s a much bandied-about figure: 216,600 victims in 2008 (the latest year for which figures are available). The DOJ appears to have recalculated that down to 203,000 (pdf) based on some methodology changes, and most responsible journalists seem to agree with that revision. (In comparison to earlier survey results from the DOJ, 49,000 (pdf) and 88,500 (pdf), the reduction pales in significance. It’s still a radical increase on what was previously acknowledged.)
The regulations are immediately binding on federal prisons. States that don’t fall in line face a loss of 5 percent of their Justice Department prison money unless their governor certifies that the same amount of money is being used to bring the state into compliance. Prison accreditation organizations also will be barred from federal grants unless they include similar anti-prison rape standards in their accreditation process, which means local jails could lose their accreditation unless they comply.
Of course, corrections officials are objecting, citing the costs of implementing the regulations. I hope it won’t take nine more years to get changes in place.
This is distressing, all of it, but not anything I hadn’t already known, suspected, or thought about. But while Googling around, I came across an article† that gave me an interestingly different angle on the matter.
Crime has not fallen in the United States—it’s been shifted. Just as Wall Street connived with regulators to transfer financial risk from spendthrift banks to careless home buyers, so have federal, state, and local legislatures succeeded in rerouting criminal risk away from urban centers and concentrating it in a proliferating web of hyperhells. The statistics touting the country’s crime-reduction miracle, when juxtaposed with those documenting the quantity of rape and assault that takes place each year within the correctional system, are exposed as not merely a lie, or even a damn lie—but as the single most shameful lie in American life.
I find the notion that violent crime has moved from the outside world to the prisons an interesting one. I’m not sure it’s a straight transfer, that we moved the criminals there so they aren’t committing crimes in our cities any more. I think violent urban crime has also fallen for the other reasons that usually get cited. Crime is not necessarily a zero-sum game; its absence in one place does not mean a new occurrence somewhere else. But I think the larger picture is true in a way the article did not intend. There is indeed a great crime going on in the prisons of the United States, one that encompasses unrecorded sexual assault, murder, and robbery, but whose extent is not defined by their boundaries. Its presence has shifted the balance of criminality in the nation.
Basically, we’re locking too damn many people up. There were 1.6 million (pdf) people in state and federal prisons as of December 2010. And it’s not all murderers, rapists and thieves: 51% of federal inmates are serving time for drug offenses and 35% for public-order offenses. Even if nothing worse happens to them, prisoners spend years in distorting and damaging regimes, where they lose the self-organization skills people need in the outside world. Some of them are kept in conditions that drive people insane.
And when we let them out (if we let them out), we prevent them from voting, so politicians rarely represent the interests of ex-cons. In this economic climate, they struggle to get jobs as well, which can in itself violate the terms of their parole. It’s even dangerous for them to blog, lest they offend the wrong person.
Allowing them to be sexually assaulted is just the icing on the cake.
We’re breaking human beings, beyond the needs of punishment or deterrence. We’re not reforming them, redeeming them, or giving them a tools to restore the social balance that they broke when they committed their crimes. We’re taking the bad situations they created and giving them no way to make them anything other than worse.
Why do we do this? Some of it’s capitalism gone septic yet again: one private prison company demanded a 90% occupancy rate as part of its management contracts. Some of it’s that streak of mutated Calvinism that infects our national discourse, whispering that bad things only happen to bad people, and therefore that the occurrence of bad things proves that those people were bad. That’s fear talking, since it’s so easy to fall off of the bottom of the ladder these days. Any reassurance that we won’t be next is a lifeline.
What to do? And who will do it?
** Note that we still seem to commit an awful lot of extra-legal violence. We just seem to valorize it less
† Mind you, there’s a lot to disagree with in the article. It repeats the canard current among the MRA crowd, that the figure of 216,600 sexual assault victims means that ‘more men are raped than women in the US’*. And its conclusions are bats: it’s all the fault of moderates! In order to stop prison rape, we must abandon all other forms of prison reform, such as elimination of the death penalty! We should embrace a British-style surveillance society!
* This ignores both the difference between assault and rape and the existence of female prisoners. So it’s wrong. But worse, it also creates an opposition between the parallel and synergistic causes of eliminating both forms of rape. Wrong and harmful. I don’t need to tell anyone what will happen to commenters pursuing that line of discussion in this conversation.