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Americans' Complicity in the Prison Rape Crisis


Society & Culture  (tags: abuse, americans, corruption, crime, culture, dishonesty, government, health, politics, Prison Rape, rights, safety, society )

Kit
- 141 days ago - america.aljazeera.com
The statistics are not entirely reliable, but in 2011 alone, the Justice Department estimates, roughly 200,000 inmates were sexually abused in detention facilities by prison staff or fellow inmates.



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Kit B. (276)
Tuesday April 29, 2014, 6:46 am
Photo Credit: LA Times



The Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, a maximum-security prison in Wetumpka, Ala., was built in 1942 to house 400 inmates. Today the facility houses more than 900 women and is the subject of a major investigation by the Department of Justice. In a report in January, the DOJ called Tutwiler a “toxic, sexualized environment,” citing a sordid history of overcrowding, poor staffing and limited oversight. More than a third of the prison staff have had sex with inmates.

Rape and sexual assault are as basic to the American prison experience as bars and bunk beds. The statistics are not entirely reliable, but in 2011 alone, the Justice Department estimates, roughly 200,000 inmates were sexually abused in detention facilities by prison staff or fellow inmates. Some were forced to perform sexual acts in exchange for sanitary supplies or to avoid punishment, while others were attacked, and submitted out of sheer powerlessness. The majority of these rape victims are men, leading some to ask whether the U.S. is the only country in the world where more men are raped than women. The prison rape epidemic is part of a broader human rights crisis. Home to less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. houses roughly a quarter of the world’s prisoners. Many are nonviolent offenders and suffer from drug addiction, mental illness or crushing poverty.

The majority of inmates live in overcrowded prisons. In California, for example, conditions were so appalling that in 2011 the Supreme Court ruled that they amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, violating the Eighth Amendment. Dozens of prisoners shared a single toilet, suicidal inmates were held for prolonged periods in cages without toilets, and hundreds of prisoners slept in bunk beds in gymnasiums. Many state penitentiaries and federal correctional facilities face a similar crisis.

In such conditions, sexual assault isn’t necessarily foreseeable. But is it surprising? Human rights abuses left unchecked deteriorate into human rights crises.

While deplorable prison conditions have facilitated the epidemic, our indifference has sustained it, making us complicit. The bodily integrity of prisoners has become a laughing matter. Just turn on your television. Prison rape is the target of countless jokes on reality shows and late-night comedy.

Much of this is political. Prisoners are typically poor, can’t vote and have few advocates. Political power is not even within their imagination. Victims of sexual assault have even less power. The majority never report the crime for fear of retaliation or further abuse. In a world of meritorious causes and limited resources, prisoner rights often go ignored.



Nor is the public a reliable ally. Although one in roughly 32 Americans will be incarcerated at some point during their lifetimes, most Americans see prison as reserved for the truly deviant. Thus, so long as crime and sexual violence takes place in prisons rather than backyards, it’s not considered a pressing problem deserving of government resources.

As repeatedly seen during rape trials, some even shift the blame to the victims. In a cruel version of caveat emptor, aggressors defend their actions by highlighting victims’ sexual history and clothing. Prison rape is sometimes explained in a similar way: If prisoners hadn’t violated the law, they wouldn’t have been assaulted. In both cases, the victims have diminished rights and are seen as having invited the invasion.

Fortunately, for the first time in decades, there’s real momentum for criminal justice reform. Fiscal austerity has spurred unlikely bedfellows, and “tough on crime” has given way to “smart on crime.”

And rightly so. The U.S. incarcerates a larger share of its black population than South Africa did at the apex of apartheid, and states consistently spend more money on prisons than on public education. The moral and financial costs of mass incarceration are simply untenable.

Liberals and conservatives are now rethinking the war on drugs, advocating for shorter sentences, and considering out-of-prison penalties for nonviolent crimes. Restoring fairness and balance to the American criminal justice system is the first step to eradicating inhumanity within it.

There has been recent progress on the issue of prison rape, too. In February, the Justice Department threatened to withhold funding to states that failed to meet certain standards in detecting, preventing and responding to sexual abuse in prisons. Last month, the Department of Homeland Security finalized comprehensive guidelines to eliminate prison rape in immigration detention centers and holding facilities.

For the women of Tutwiler prison, and countless others, change can’t come soon enough. For more than a generation, we have tolerated — nay, mocked — a human rights catastrophe of our own making. It is time to marshal the necessary will and resources, and conclude this shameful story.
****

By: Arjun Seithi | Op-Ed | Al Jazeera America |


Arjun Sethi is a lawyer in Washington, D.C., and a frequent commentator on civil rights and social-justice-related issues. He is on the board of directors of Grassroots Leadership.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.
 

Sue Matheson (71)
Tuesday April 29, 2014, 6:59 am
thanks
 

Frances Darcy (218)
Tuesday April 29, 2014, 10:14 am
shocking
 

Angelika R. (143)
Tuesday April 29, 2014, 10:55 am
"shameful" doesn't do it, this is beyond shameful and i cannot see how society has been tolerating this for so long without any loud outcries! That certainly is telling.
 

Dandelion G. (387)
Tuesday April 29, 2014, 11:43 am
The photo alone would tell anyone that this is prime conditions for people to have their human rights abused. No privacy, overcrowding, being made to fell less than human, no room for rehabilitation, the list goes on. That is all the reported crimes against individuals, I'm sure it is actually a lot higher.
 

Shirley S. (174)
Tuesday April 29, 2014, 7:41 pm
Prison REFORM in America is LONG OVERDUE !!
 

Michael Kirkby (85)
Wednesday April 30, 2014, 4:59 pm
Noted & posted
 

Sherri G. (113)
Wednesday April 30, 2014, 10:50 pm
Treatment of prisoners especially in CA is deteriorating because the care and maintenance including guards has been privatized and no longer run by the state. Gov Jerry Brown like so many politicians have let this happen. It is not just Republicans my Friends. Democrats too have allowed this to happen just like privatizing the military with military contractors. There is no consistency in treatment or care between the prisons either. Each prisoners world is very small. TY for posting Kit Noted.
 
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