by Steve Chapman
attorney general of California is very unhappy about the state's energy crisis, and he has come up with the perfect solution. It involves a creative type of punishment for Kenneth Lay, chairman of the Houston-based energy company Enron. Though Lay has not been convicted of any crime, Bill Lockyer says, "I would love to personally escort Lay to an 8-by-10 cell that he could share with a tattooed dude who says, 'Hi, my name is Spike, honey.'"
Let the record show that the chief law enforcement officer for the nation's biggest state regards prison rape as a valuable feature of his correctional system. Soft-hearted souls may lament the sexual victimization of jail and prison inmates by violent sociopaths, but Lockyer's chief concern is that there are some people who have yet to experience this form of justice.
It used to be that prison was feared because it meant a prolonged loss of freedom, hard labor, separation from family and friends and, sometimes, violence by guards. But somewhere along the line, Americans got used to the idea that it also involves sadistic sexual abuse, with no one doing anything to stop it.
Why are we so nonchalant? We might be outraged that anti-social thugs are getting away with horrific new crimes every day, under the very noses of law enforcement. Instead, many people -- Lockyer among them -- have embraced the proposition that the victims are getting only what they deserve.
One of the reasons this phenomenon gets little attention is that it's largely invisible. Even critics can only make educated guesses about the scope of the problem. But it's clearly large. A survey of seven men's prisons in four states, published last year in Prison Journal, found that 21 percent of inmates had been coerced or forced into sexual contact, with 7 percent reporting they had been raped.
When Human Rights Watch did a confidential poll of prison guards in an unnamed Southern state, they estimated that one in five inmates were victims of such abuse. Inmates said it was more like one in three.
Suppose we take a conservative estimate and say that one of every 10 inmates suffers this misfortune. With more than 1.8 million men behind bars at any given time, that means at least 180,000 inmates are forcibly violated every year. And that's not counting what goes on in juvenile facilities. For comparison's sake, in the entire United States, 124,730 females were raped in 1999.
How can sexual abuse possibly be regarded as an appropriate part of serving time? Some of the victims are vicious thugs themselves. But many people in prisons and jails were arrested for nonviolent offenses -- drug dealing or possession, auto theft, drunk driving, and the like.
Many of us, if a close relative were found guilty of one of these crimes, would think he should pay for his offense by losing his freedom for a long while. But few of us would agree he deserves to be beaten, stabbed, sodomized, and infected with AIDS, which is what prison often means. If a judge were to give a convict a sentence like that, it would be ruled cruel and unusual punishment. So what do you call it when it's imposed informally by another convict?
Lockyer might not have the stomach to actually watch one of the encounters that he finds so amusing. One inmate interviewed by Human Rights Watch for its recent report had complained to guards after being raped. His assailant responded by beating him with a combination lock -- breaking his neck, jaw, collarbone and finger, dislocating his shoulder, and giving him two serious concussions -- before raping him again. Afterward, the victim could read the word "Master," the brand of the lock, on his forehead. Many inmates simply submit rather than risk being stomped to a pulp.
Atrocities like this happen all the time, mainly because hardly anyone minds. Says Human Rights Watch, "Rape and other sexual abuses occur in prison because correctional officials, to a surprising extent, do little to stop them." Authorities have no great incentive to take the problem seriously, because they generally can't be held liable for attacks. In overcrowded, understaffed facilities, prevention may be impossible. Prosecutors, meanwhile, see no need to seek punishment.
Treating prison rape like the crime it is would deter some attacks. Prisons could also act swiftly to segregate the perpetrators from the rest of the inmate population. The surest remedy is also the most expensive: Put all prisoners in one-man cells, so they don't have to sleep with one eye open.
Or maybe we should just require all government officials with responsibility for prisons and jails to spend a couple of nights a year in one of their own facilities. Since you're already acquainted, Mr. Lockyer, you'll be rooming with Spike.
June 12, 2001 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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