prison-rape-ad“Prison rape occupies a fairly odd space in our culture,” wrote Ezra Klein in 2008, bringing to the fore a subject that is still too often ignored. “It is, all at once, a cherished source of humor, a tacitly accepted form of punishment, and a broadly understood human rights abuse.”

We are justifiably outraged by the human rights abuses occurring in foreign lands. Why then are we not more outraged by atrocities here in our own country? Our reactions to the problem range from smirking indifference to embarrassed silence. But how can we be indifferent and silent when, as reports by the National Prison Rape Commission continue to show, rape and other forms of sexual assault are becoming endemic to our prison system?

In 2004 the corrections industry estimated that 12,000 rapes occurred per year—more than the annual number of rapes reported in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York combined. Three years later a survey by the U.S. Department of Justice found that more than 60,000 inmates claimed to have been sexually victimized by prison guards or other inmates during the previous 12 months.

As reports suggest, prison gangs target first-time and non-violent offenders for sexual servitude. Once an inmate is forced into a sexually submissive role, the gangs treat him as chattel. While prison guards increasingly turn a blind eye, the gangs use these men as sexual slaves.

Although the majority of these inmates are eventually returned back into the general public, their sentence could turn into a death penalty. Tuberculosis, HIV and hepatitis C are up to 10 times more prevalent in correctional institutions than in the outside population. The repeated abuse these inmates receive makes it almost inevitable that they will be exposed to one of these fatal diseases.

While men tend to be violated by their fellow inmates, female prisoners tend to be raped and assaulted by correctional facility employees. According to Lara Stemple, executive director of Stop Prisoner Rape, in some prisons, up to 27 percent of female inmates are sexually abused. This also leads to a shockingly high rate of prison pregnancy, which only compounds the prisoners’ problems.

During his first term as president, George W. Bush signed into law the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which calls for the gathering of national statistics, the development of guidelines for states about how to address prisoner rape, the creation of a review panel to hold annual hearings and the provision of grants to states to combat the problem. After decades of ignoring sexual torture and abuse, the hearings and reports helped shine a light on the dark corners of our correctional system.

Yet it is only recently that the Department of Justice has begun to implement new prison rape regulations outlined 10 years ago in the PREA. “We’re poised now – finally – to take action,” Deputy Assistant Attorney General Mary Lou Leary told attendees of an American Bar Association event in Washington, D.C.

Such laws and regulations are a useful beginning, but what is needed more than any legislation is a change in attitude by the American public. While jokes about conventional rape are always considered in bad taste, humor about prison rape is common and broadly accepted. Television and film frequently make jokes about sexual assault in prison. A few years ago, John Sebelius, son of Kathleen Sebelius, former Kansas governor and the current Secretary of Health and Human Services, created a board game called “Don’t Drop the Soap.” When the game was released the governor’s spokesmen said both parents “are very proud of their son John’s creativity and talent.” Would the governor have expressed the same pride if her son designed a game about the rape of women?

How odd indeed that we joke about acts we would denounce if they occurred in other lands. The fact that so many Americans are appalled and angered by human rights abuses in countries like Syria, Iran and China speaks well of our nation. But we must hold our own country to the same standards. We can’t look away from the sexual torture, assault, slavery and abuses that are rampant in our own penal system. Concern for human rights must extend beyond both the water’s edge and the prison door.


  • Riley

    I’m sure there are female inmates who are raped by staff, but there are also female inmates who target male staff because they have nothing to lose. A female inmate who seduces a staff member is considered a victim by law because inmates cannot consent. And she gets creds and high fives from her fellow inmates.

  • Riley

    Thank you for bringing this important topic to light. It’s an absolute atrocity for rape to be tolerated in prisons in this country. I think the attitude among correctional staff is much improved from what it was ten years ago.

  • anarchobuddy

    Do Americans really care about prisons and inmates anyway? The incarceration rate is so high that, while usually measured worldwide in inmates per 100,000 population, it can be measured in whole numbers per 100 in some US states. I think if Americans had any idea how much this prison-state cost them, they would care a lot more.