Fyodor Dostoevsky once said, "The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons." Try it here in the U.S. But wear boots; it's a sewer.
You may know that our prisons are appalling. If you don't, you should; you're responsible. But even with what you think you know, you've certainly missed the disgusting secret of U.S. jails and prisons: rape. Rape is a method of control with the collusion, sometimes instigation, of guards. Men rape men; women are raped by guards, staff and other inmates. Rape, with the silent acceptance of wardens and staff, is the savage routine in our prisons. It is the initiation process for frightened "new fish;" it's the price of survival for the small, the weak, the defenseless, the gay. It is the fear that haunts the days and nights of those not yet turned out -- or turned into predators. Per the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, its "horrors... border on the unimaginable."
Those who object to it face denial, denial, and then denial. Stop Prisoner Rape, founded in 1980 to deal "with the problems of rape, sexual assault, un-consensual sexual slavery, and forced prostitution in the prison context," was formed by brave men who admitted their own victimization in order to save others from the same fate. After twenty years, they were finally able to open an office. Not until 2003 did they develop enough support to secure the passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), the first-ever federal law acknowledging this hidden sin.
Now, the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission meets periodically to "study the impact of prisoner rape." While they study, rape continues. And to this day those who decades ago had the courage to challenge rape in prison are tortured for their audacity. In a biting irony, the Commission recently met in New Orleans, Louisiana. At Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary known as "The Farm," two of the Angola Three have been in solitary confinement for 35 years for standing up to protect "new fish" from the long established practice of sexual dominance by veteran inmates.
The three, Robert King Wilkerson, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, were sent to Angola in the late 1960s. Unwilling to submit to this depravity, they organized a chapter of the Black Panther Party -- said to be the first inside a prison -- in 1971, in an effort to end systematic rape and violence, desegregate the institution and offer help and hope to others. Their efforts so infuriated the authorities that they were separated from everyone else, tried on trumped-up charges, convicted and placed in solitary confinement in 1972. And there they remained, for decades. Robert Wilkerson was exonerated and released in 2001 after 29 years in solitary confinement. Herman Wallace, still in solitary, recently had his conviction reviewed by a state court commissioner who recommended it be overturned. Albert Woodfox lives in hope, alone for 35 years in solitary confinement.
As Dostoyevsky said, "A society should be judged not by how it treats its outstanding citizens but by how it treats its criminals." 35 years in solitary confinement for standing up against rape? Wear boots, it's a sewer.
Mike Farrell, President of the board of Death Penalty Focus, is the author of "Just Call Me Mike; A Journey to Actor and Activist."