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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Crime No One Is Willing To Stop

Props to Ezra Klein at TAPPED for once again posting on the unsavory but important issue of prison rape, which doesn’t appear to have abated despite Congress’ unanimous 2003 legislation (signed by Bush) called the Prison Rape Elimination Act.As Robert Weisberg and David Mills pointed out in Slate shortly after the 2003 legislation was signed:

[D]espite its grand words and its sponsors’ passionate expressions of concern, the main thing the law aims to do is collect data, and that may be, paradoxically, both quixotic and redundant.It is quixotic because the obvious problems of unreliable observations and underreporting inherent in prison assault make highly refined objective data a fantasy. It is redundant because the relevant facts are already clear: A recent report by Human Rights Watch synthesized data and various perception surveys from around the United States and conservatively concluded that approximately 20 percent of all inmates are sexually assaulted in some way and at least 7 percent raped. A cautious inference is that nearly 200,000 current inmates have been raped and nearly 1 million have been sexually assaulted over the past 20 years.

A look at the web page of the primary product of the 2003 act, the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, does not indicate what anyone would call a blizzard of activity. It’s held some hearings, and offers links to studies of prison rape, some of which were conducted prior to 2003. There is a link to an interesting 2006 Urban Institute report on state implementation of the NPREA. Despite lots of examples of new state programs, the report poses several “questions” that still need to be answered through “research.” Here are three of them that tell you everything you need to know:

Do the programs described in this report matter? Are incidents of PSV [Prison Sexual Violence] being eliminated in DOCs [state Departments of Corrections] implementing prevention efforts?…. Are perpetrators of PSV, both staff and inmates, being held accountable, through DOC sanctions and administrative penalties as well as criminally?

So we are definitely not as a society racing towards what the 2003 federal legislation described as a “zero-tolerance” position on prison rape. And thus we continue to accept the cruel irony of making prisons one of the most common arenas for the commission of one of the most violent felony crimes.Simple indifference aside, there are two obvious barriers to eliminating prison rape. The first is that most of the remedies are controversial (incarcerating far fewer non-violent offenders) or very expensive (building less crowded prisons, providing much higher pay and better training and supervision of prison staff, or radically improving monitoring of inmates).And the second barrier to change is the really dirty little non-secret underlying tolerance of prison rape: the idea that it’s an effective deterrent to criminal behavior.This “walk the line or get raped” attitude has undeniably been prevalent on the political Right, where for years politicians have railed against so-called “country-club prisons” and suggested that inmates deserve the most barbarous conditions imaginable. (There has to be a special place in hell for conservatives who want to criminalize loving, consensual gay and lesbian relationships, while smiling upon prison rape.) But it’s also found implicit currency elsewhere, among virtually every advocacy group that wants to deter some anti-social behavior, from drunk driving to white collar crime, by raising the specter of getting sent off to Oz and maybe being raped. As Ezra noted uncomfortably in a post last year:

When we were hoping to put Ken Lay behind bars, Bill Lockyer explained his grand desire “to personally escort Lay to an 8-by-10 cell that he could share with a tattooed dude who says, Hi, my name is Spike, honey.”‘

One of the most pervasive indicators of the keep-prisons-barbarous temptation has been the widespread deployment of “scared straight” programs which shuttle school kids through prisons to give them a taste of the consequences of straying into criminal behavior. No one has quite, yet, suggested staging a prison gang-rape for the edification of touring students. But that would in fact represent an act of clarifying honesty for those who continue to tolerate, for whatever reason, sexual violence in prisons.

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