Sex and power -- forces rampant in our prison system, thwarted and twisted by the jail culture. Lock up large numbers of the same gender and the frustrated sexual energy is palpable. Likewise, in jail everyone -- wardens, correctional officers, inmates -- wants power, fights for it, manipulates for it, in a place where everyone is made to feel impotent. The locked up teenagers I taught over a ten year period in an adult county facility and about whom I write in I Don't Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup, had a great image for that lack of power: crabs in a bucket, stepping over each other, pulling down the ones closest to the top, so nobody wins.
Sex and power, as everyone knows, are the ingredients of rape. Consequently, the prison rape numbers are high. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics 88,500 incarcerated adults were sexually abused -- by correctional staff or other inmates -- in 2009. This number doesn't include the kids who have been sexually victimized while locked up, an even higher percentage.
Disturbing numbers made even more disturbing by the fact that seven years ago the George W. Bush congress (surprisingly) passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act.
It's a good bill that raised the alarm regarding widespread prison sexual assaults. It also established the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission to investigate and make recommendations on how best to stop prisoner sexual abuse. In June 2009 the Commission finally released its report setting out certain reforms. However, the Obama administration has yet to adopt those findings.
The recommendations are thorough, straightforward and sensible. Among them, instituting zero tolerance policies of all sexual abuse. Training staff to identify potential sexual assault situations. Teaching inmates their right to report sexual harassment without reprisals. Screening new inmates for their risk of being sexually abused or abusive.
When I read what the Commission suggested I wondered why prisons haven't already been taking these commonsensical, low cost measures which would have spared thousands of men and women pain and suffering. And I wondered what this failure said about our criminal justice system's attitude -- and our society's attitude -- towards prison rape, and prisoners in general?
But if we really want to get at the causes of prison sexual assaults we have to dig deeper than a commissioned report.
The system is the problem. Our jails are run on a culture of violence. Walk into a jail and you'll know that violence. Every day I worked in the county jail I was hit by it. The smells of men packed into overcrowded dorms; of exposed toilets; of rancid food. The constant din of the PA system; of the blaring television; of officers and inmates shouting over it all. The sight of a handcuffed inmate being dragged down the hall to the Special Housing Unit by the black-clad emergency response team. Just another day in the county lockup.
A more subtle message of this culture of violence is the dehumanization of the body. Sounds pretty philosophical, but in jail it translates real easy: Your body isn't yours. You dress, undress, shower, shit under somebody's eye, electronic or otherwise. You can be stripped down and exposed to cameras; you can be prodded and explored -- "cavity searched" -- all at corrections' command. My jailhouse students knew this. During one of corrections' clampdowns on jailhouse tattoos, one of the kids, a tattoo artist, commented, "The way police see it, when we do our shit, we're defacing county property." When human beings are treated as commodities, sexual assault becomes inevitable; and this inevitability fits the publics' perception: Prison rape happens. (Yet, can you imagine the outbreak if these attacks took place in any other public care institution?)
Prison rape can only be diminished when we change the culture of violence within our jails. It's not impossible. It is being done in some prisons across the country where administrators such as Sunny Schwartz in the San Francisco county jails have had the courage and vision to implement programs in restorative justice and violence reduction programs, for example. These approaches, when supported by administrators and uniformed staff, have reduced sexual violence by demanding full accountability from inmates and correctional staff alike while ensuring that each person is valued and respected.
In March, Attorney General Holder told a congressional committee that addressing prison rape "...is something that I think needs to be done, not tomorrow, but yesterday." Today is "yesterday." The victims of prison rape can't wait for another "yesterday."