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When No One is Watching

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The Black Guerilla Family prison gang controlled the Baltimore City jail. According to a federal indictment, 27 correctional officers, along with 17 others, "were in bed with BGF inmates." That would be literally and figuratively. Gang leader Tavon White impregnated no fewer than four female guards. One had "Tavon" tattooed on her wrist. Guards smuggled in cellphones, drugs and other contraband. Inmates who were not gang members were forced to pay protection money to the BGF, or get family members to do so.

According to the indictment, White boasted of his control of the prison on his prohibited cellphone: "This is my jail. You understand that? I'm dead serious ... I make every final call in this jail ... and nothing go past me ... Any of my brothers that deal with anybody, it's gonna come to me. Before (somebody) stab somebody, they gotta run it through me."

It sounds like HBO, but it's real. Guards and prisoners who participated in the criminal conspiracy profited, the indictment charges, through "drug trafficking, robbery, assault, extortion, bribery, witness retaliation, money laundering and obstruction of justice."

Baltimore may be worse than most, but it's hardly unique. The Atlantic reports that the Aryan Brotherhood held sway -- at least to some degree -- at federal prisons in Georgia and Pennsylvania. A Department of Justice study released earlier this year found that 10 percent of inmates had experienced some form of sexual abuse while imprisoned -- half at the hands of guards. That's more than 200,000, and it's probably a low estimate, as many victims are intimidated into silence.

It's a conservative insight that power will be abused if people are given unchecked authority. Lord Acton summed it up well. Prison guards have pretty much absolute power over their charges. They can easily deny the basics of life -- food, sleep, medicine, clothing and physical safety.

No doubt the job of guarding the worst criminals is not pleasant, and no doubt the majority of prison guards do their work honorably and conscientiously.

Still, prison rape is shamefully common. In 2003, Congress unanimously passed, and President George W. Bush signed, the Prison Rape Elimination Act. It created a commission to study the problem. And in 2009, the commission issued its report.

The Obama administration Justice Department was given one year to issue regulations. It didn't. It delayed for two years. The Washington Post editorialized that "tens of thousands of men, women and children have been sexually abused behind bars over the past three years while the Obama administration dithered."

Finally, in June of 2012, the DOJ issued 43 regulations that would require 148,455 hours of paperwork nationwide, require "methods to ensure effective communication with inmates who are deaf or hard of hearing" and mandate post-incident reviews that consider whether attacks were "motivated by hate." The regulations are estimated to cost nearly $7 billion but contain no metric for evaluating success.

Congress needs to exercise more pointed oversight. There may be some Americans who are willing to overlook prison rape and other crimes on the grounds that criminals are unsympathetic victims, but not many. A unanimous vote of the United States Congress is a rare thing. But battling the worst temptations of human nature is never simple, and one vote for one piece of legislation isn't enough.

One way to curb abuse is with cameras. A federal judge in North Carolina has ordered a prison to install additional cameras after a shackled inmate was dragged out of the view of a camera and beaten by three guards. He suffered fractured bones in his hands, face and pelvis. Technology has made cameras smaller and cheaper than ever. Digitalization permits virtually every second of prison life to be recorded.

Outside auditors, as the commission recommended, are also essential in providing regular reports on conditions inside the nation's prisons.

The $7 billion the Obama administration proposes to spend on regulations is almost certainly excessive. But some money must be spent. One reason government spending on unnecessary boondoggles is so offensive is that it limits the funds available for essential government functions. Criminals deserve to serve out their sentences. But to permit them to be abused or sexually assaulted while incarcerated violates the Eighth Amendment and common decency.

What Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote in the 19th century remains true: "The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons."

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