The shame of our prisons

Posted: May 09, 2003 12:00 AM

When is rape a joke? When it takes place behind bars, and it is men brutalizing other men.

Our tolerance for prison rape, considered a subject fit for late-night TV humor, is a great mystery. We profess to abhor rape, to adore personal dignity, to uphold the rights of the downtrodden -- yet we sentence tens of thousands of men every year to the most bestial kind of abuse, without a second thought beyond the occasional chuckle.

The silence surrounding this national shame has been broken by a right-left coalition in Washington that is pushing federal prison-rape legislation, likely to pass and be signed into law this year. It will be a first step to alleviating the problem, if not the end of the vile jokes.

An often-cited estimate is that 22 percent to 25 percent of prisoners a year experience sexual pressuring, attempted sexual assault or completed rapes, while one in 10 of the nation's 2 million prisoners suffer a completed rape. Given the gaps in reporting, most experts consider these numbers conservative.

The victims are typically the young, the weak, gays, previous rape victims, the outcasts and the mentally ill (this last category is particularly appalling considering that there are more mentally ill people in prison than in psychiatric hospitals). Rape can be a tool other inmates use against convicted rapists and child molesters, but often victims are pretrial detainees serving short-time or convicted on nonviolent offenses.

They are simply those who can't defend themselves. Rape is a body- and life-shattering experience. Victims are often infected with HIV or other diseases, and are prone to more anti-social behavior after they leave prison than when they entered.

After an assault, a victim's choices are usually to try to continue resisting and suffer the resulting beatings, or to become the sexual slave of another stronger inmate for protection. Another option is suicide.

Think about it: This is your tax dollars at work.

Christian right groups like Prison Fellowship Ministries and the Southern Baptist Convention have formed a wide-ranging coalition to address the problem with groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Amnesty International. Michael Horowitz of the Hudson Institute points out that Christian conservatives have become the driving force behind human-rights legislation in recent years, allying with the left to pass bills on religious persecution overseas, sex trafficking, AIDS in Africa and now prison rape.

Virginia Republican Rep. Frank Wolf, who finds himself aligned with Sen. Ted Kennedy on the prison-rape bill, is typical of conservative supporters. In explaining his advocacy, he cites the Gospel, Matthew from chapter 25 ("I was in prison and you visited me ..."), as well as gut-level abhorrence at the unbearable stories from prisons.

The bill is mild. It requires that the Justice Department gather statistics on rape, and that prison officials from states where the incidence of rape significantly exceeds the national average explain themselves in Washington. It creates a National Prison Rape Reduction Commission, the recommendations of which the attorney general is free to reject or accept.

The bill seems impossible to oppose, but that hasn't stopped elements of the Bush Justice Department from resisting. They worry that the bill trespasses on federalism principles, even though the Supreme Court has held that deliberate indifference to rape violates the Constitution's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

"John Ashcroft is for it -- I've spoken to him," says Wolf. "But I've had low-level, behind-the-scenes opposition from Justice. We would have passed the bill last year if it hadn't been for some people in the Justice Department."

One can only imagine that President Bush, who has spoken movingly of the imperative to show compassion toward prisoners and their families, would be ashamed if he knew that lawyers in his administration were obstructing such a bill.

The 19th-century novelist Feodor Dostoevski, a political prisoner in Russia for four years, wrote: "The degree to which a society is civilized can be judged by entering its prisons." No wonder we want to avert our eyes from ours.

On Another Note: In my airline CEO column, I said that AirTran is losing money. Actually, it has posted profits in four consecutive quarters. I regret the error.