Recently on Last Week Tonight, John Oliver delivered a great segment on the American prison system. One of the issues he addressed was the public’s apathy toward and alarming amusement by the occurrence of rape in prisons. “It’s so easy not to care about prisoners,” he said. “They are, by definition, convicted criminals. In fact, it’s so easy not to care that we are really comfortable making jokes about one of the most horrifying things that can potentially happen to them.” Rape.
Sexual assault is prevalent in our prisons and jails—a fact most Americans have probably gathered from popular media wherein prison rape jokes are common. According to the 2011-2012 National Inmate Survey, 4.0 percent of federal and state incarcerated persons and 3.2 percent of those in jails reported being sexually assaulted—from unwanted touching to rape—in the last twelve months. A prison or jail staff member was said to be responsible for more than half of these incidents. These numbers are open to question, of course. Other studies have suggested higher percentages, and sexual assaults are traditionally under reported.
Sexual violence should not occur in any space, yet its appearance in correctional facilities is especially troubling—prisons and jails are, in theory, controlled environments. Realistically, they cannot be completely controlled, but the rape of an inmate is a far greater oversight than the entry of contraband. Because the majority of these incidences occur at the hands of staff members, the crime is an even worse insult to our criminal justice system and our humanity.
The United States incarcerates more people than any other nation—largely a result of its militant and racist drug war—and thus its criminal justice system is subjecting a highly unusual number of people to violence in a confined space where they are unable to adequately protect themselves. The sexual victimization of imprisoned persons defeats one of the theoretical purposes of incarceration: rehabilitation. Upon their release, formerly incarcerated persons not only have to try to obtain housing, jobs, and educational opportunities with a criminal record attached to their names but they must also aim to cope with the emotional scars of being subjected or witness to sexual violence. The average incarcerated woman, for instance, has been a victim of physical or sexual abuse prior to being imprisoned. Incarceration may only continue the violence she is forced to confront.
Despite common knowledge of prison rape culture, the victims’ stories have largely gone untold and their pain has been cheapened into humor. Recently, select incidents of rape have received substantial media attention with the help of social networking and student activism. From college campuses to high school parties, the public is taking part in an ongoing conversation about rape culture—outside of prison walls. The victims whose lives are disrupted and thrown into the media spotlight are generally young, educated women who themselves pose no real or imagined threat to society. Justifiably, sympathy and support pours in from feminists and, quite frankly, anyone who is appalled by their cases and how the media, educational institutions, and the criminal justice system handle them. These stories are important. They remind us that rape culture deeply permeates American culture, and as a society, we have an obligation to combat and protect one another from its consequences. That obligation—as it is expressed in our mainstream conscience—currently does not extend in a meaningful way to our most vulnerable population: incarcerated children, men, and woman.
Incarcerated persons are forced to relinquish their bodies to the power of the state and render their humanity to public opinion. The government and the private prison industry have done very little to prevent sexual violence in jails and prisons. The media has presented sexual assault as a normal component of the punishment dealt to lawbreakers. Prison rape has been the subject of jokes (don’t drop the soap), used jokingly as a deterrent to crime (if you get caught, you know what will happen to someone like you in jail), and as an interrogation method (Law and Order: Special Victims Unit detectives have, on a number of occasions, threatened suspected sex offenders with the prospect of eye for an eye justice at the hands of other inmates). Taken together, society has stripped incarcerated children, men, and women of their humanity. Their dehumanization is possible in part because of the uneducated popular notion that criminals stem from a culture not our own and that the conditions of their punishment are generally well deserved. With nearly one out of every 100 adults in the United States in jail or prison, the message society is currently sending is that sexual assault is tragic—99 percent of the time.
No one deserves to be the victim of a sexual crime—not even those society values so little that we store them away from public sight and sympathy. In the name of universal human dignity, the outrage surrounding rape culture must extend to the 2.2 million people behind American bars.
Jelani Hayes is an intern in the media department at the Drug Policy Alliance and a senior at the University of Pennsylvania.