This editorial will appear in Monday’s print edition.
Rape and sexual abuse remain too much a fact of life behind bars.
That’s intolerable. In the United States, our criminal justice system sends convicts to prison as punishment, not for punishment.
The recommendations of the federal Prison Rape Elimination Commission could be a step toward changing the prison culture that permits sexual abuse to continue.
The commission found that more than 60,000 prisoners are the victims of rape and sexual abuse each year. Many inmates are afraid to report such crimes and even those who do are often ignored or dismissed.
Not only hardcore criminals are being victimized. The commission heard from former inmates who made relatively minor mistakes – a political protest gone wrong, a drunken driving arrest or a probation violation – and ended up being brutally raped.
No matter what they did to land in jail, captives are a vulnerable population. They depend on prison authorities to protect them, and it’s in the best interests of those officials to do so.
Prisoners will seek protection where they can find it. When the only safe harbor is a gang, the repercussions affect not only prison safety but also public safety when prisoners carry their gangster ways to the streets after their release.
The commission is recommending that Attorney General Eric Holder issue standards that require prisons to have zero-tolerance policies on rape, better staff training and improved screening to identify prisoners vulnerable to abuse, among other measures. States could lose federal prison money if they fail to comply.
The cost to staff and equip jails and prisons accordingly will be high. But so too is the cost of the status quo.
Washington officials just agreed to pay $1 million to settle part of a class action lawsuit by current and former female inmates who claimed they were sexually assaulted by corrections officers at the state’s Purdy prison. Still pending is a dispute over what the state will do to prevent other inmates from being abused and to keep abuse allegations from languishing in files.
The rape commission’s report is significant not just for its recommendations but also for its attempts to quantify the problem. As much as sexual abuse has been assumed an inevitable consequence of confinement, its actual scope hasn’t been well documented.
In 1994, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a prison system’s failure to prevent sexual abuse of inmates can be a violation of the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The caveat was that corrections officials must have known or should have known about the abuse.
Credible deniability, if there ever was such a thing, is in short supply today.