Kathryn Lopez

116. That's about how many prisoners in America's jails are raped every day, according to a new report.

Alarmingly, "More prisoners reported abuse by staff than abuse by other prisoners," says Pat Nolan, vice chairman of Prison Fellowship, an organization that ministers to convicts. Nolan calls it a "total abuse of authority" that's also an indicator of a "breakdown of the system" -- a system that purports to be based on the principle of justice.

This issue won't inspire marches on Washington, and it's not new. But a coordinated effort to change the corrections culture is something novel, and very overdue. A study issued by a bipartisan panel established by the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 aims to do just that, investigating "the prevention, detection, response and monitoring of sexual abuse in correction and detention facilities in the United States."

And why did this need to be done? The results speak for themselves. "Too often in what should be secure environments, men, women and children are raped or abused by other incarcerated individuals and corrections staff," the report found.

Nolan, who served on the commission and has spent time inside prisons providing religious guidance to convicts, calls what happens in the facilities "astounding." He cautions that the report "significantly understates" the problem, because it relied so much on self-policing and recording.

The good news, for the sake of human dignity and the health of society, is that in Nolan's wide experience, Americans are compassionate. The topic is unsavory, which is why it likely won't start a large public groundswell. But, Nolan observes, most people assume that no one gets away with rape, a blatantly illegal act, in the hyper-controlled environment of prison. Once they realize that prison life regularly involves facing the corruption, abuse or wholesale failure of authority, people quickly express outrage. Further, Nolan says, people understand what this has to do with stabilization, rehabilitation and common sense. Having had his dignity debased behind bars, a released inmate is rejoining civil society with all kinds of uncivil thoughts, bitter and angry at the horrors inflicted on him not just by his rapists, but also by the justice system that overlooked the criminal acts happening under its nose.

So what is to be done?


Kathryn Lopez

Kathryn Jean Lopez, editor of National Review Online, writes a weekly column of conservative political and social commentary for Newspaper Enterprise Association.