The Rolling Stone story of a vicious gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity is now suspect. What really happened to the story's victim, "Jackie," is now unknown, and the culture-warrior frenzy surrounding the issue has beclouded anything we can learn from it. The one thing we have been assured of is that, Rolling Stone's snafus aside, the problem of sexual assault on campuses has reached epidemic proportions.
But we don't have to descend to the netherworld of Greek life to find evidence of an insidious rape culture. There are indeed state-supported institutions where gang rape is used as ritual initiation. There are institutional authorities that meet this culture with indifference or outright support. And we file the poor souls of this system under the heading: deserving victims. We joke in ways that suggest that if these rape victims did not want it, they should never have put on a prison uniform.
In this manner, rape is treated as a feature of our justice system when it happens to prisoners, rather than what it is: another grave crime.
Roughly 200,000 men, women, and children reported being sexually abused in detention facilities in 2011, the most recent year for which the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) has anonymously self-reported data from inmates. For prisons, whites reported inmate-on-inmate sexual victimization at twice the rate of blacks. Black and Hispanic inmates reported higher rates of staff sexual misconduct. Persons of two or more races reported by far the highest rates for both inmate-on-inmate (4 percent) and staff sexual misconduct (3.9 percent). And of the more than 600 correctional facilities surveyed that year, the Oglala Sioux facility in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, reported the highest rate of staff sexual misconduct (10.8 percent)*. (The national average for prisons and jails is 2.4 percent and 1.8 percent, respectively). [Colorlines]
Statistics on rape are notoriously unreliable. In or out of prison, victims often fear reporting on their assailants. And so the above statistics are likely to underestimate the problem. But we do know that once you include the prison population, men are raped more often in the United States than women.
In prison, men may become the victim of repeated gang rapes. Prisoners can be locked into cells with the men who prey on them. Some live under the constant threat of sexual assault for decades. Their efforts to report their rape are ignored or even punished, both by prison personnel and an inmate culture that destroys "snitches." The threat of rape is so pervasive it causes some inmates to "consent" to sex with certain prisoners or officers as a way of avoiding rape by others.
Acceptance of prison rape is a stinking corruption. No conception of justice can include plunging criminals into an anarchic world of sexual terror. And obviously it thwarts any possibility of a rehabilitative justice that aims to restore criminals to lawful society. Inmates are not improved or better integrated into society through physical and psychological torture.
Prison rape also vitiates any sense of retributive justice, since rape is not a proper punishment for a crime. Allowing prison rape is just a vindictive horror, and when accepted under the name of punishment makes criminals the victims of justice.
The first step to reform is simply acknowledging the humanity of our prisoners. Part of that involves reconciling our concepts of retribution and rehabilitation. After all, making sure that an appropriate punishment is inflicted on a convicted criminal (and no more than that) is a way of taking the original crime and the original victim seriously, too.
Some crimes deserve the worst punishment the state can inflict, and any society that recognizes capital offenses should include rape among murder and treason. But even if our society will not treat rape with that kind of gravity, it should actively prevent it and punish it when it happens directly under state supervision, as any reasonable magistrate would do. Antiwar activists like to say that they do not want bombs dropped "in our name." But we should remember that the collateral damage at the state penitentiary or at the juvie hall is just as much in our name as a bomb with "Made in the USA" painted on it.
That word "magistrate" reflects the conviction — born from the transition from private vendettas to a state-run justice system — that the law and its agents have a magisterial (teaching) function. Absent major and drastic reform of our prison system, however, the "lesson" our justice system teaches is not that crimes will be punished, but that getting caught may send you to unpredictable horrors; that our society's primary way of dealing with criminality is plunging you into more of it; and that the rod of the law comes in the form of supermax cruelty.
This is rot at the foundation of our civilization, and it is time we confronted it.