Friday, June 25, 2010

Another (Horrifying) Cost of Incarceration

Prison rape is hardly a light topic for a Friday, but it's in the news today.

Last year, the Prison Rape Elimination Commission issued a report and gave the Justice Department one year to issue standards for reducing rape and sexual assault in prisons. That June 23, 2010, deadline has now come and gone. We may see standards by the end of the year.  Today's Washington Post editorial puts some heat on Attorney General Eric Holder and the Department of Justice for the delay:

The Justice Department has unnecessarily replicated some of the commission's work and lost its sense of urgency. It has forgotten that the presence of sexual violence indicates that a facility lacks basic controls. It has closed its eyes to the obligation to ensure that sexual violence is never tolerated as a collateral consequence of incarceration. It has shut out the fact that those raped in prison are likely one day to be released and asked to rejoin civil society -- a task made that much more difficult by the savagery experienced behind bars. It has, in short, abdicated its responsibility to lead.
The DOJ's defense of the delay is here.  The Hill covers the delay here.

Not to get philosophical with you on a Friday, but this issue goes to the heart of the question, "How much is the state allowed to take?"  It can punish, and it can imprison.  And in many cases, it should do both.  But I keep hearing a common refrain among everyday Americans that is downright disturbing.  It's not enough just to "lock 'em up and throw away the key."  It's also, "We don't care what happens to them when they go in there. They did it to themselves by committing the crime.  They deserve whatever they've got coming to them."  (Don't believe me?  Read some of the comments on the editorial.)

But, as the Post notes, we care what happens to prisoners when they get out and come back to our neighborhoods. Going to prison can be traumatic enough without adding rape to the stay behind bars. And coming home from prison is difficult enough without having to cope with the trauma of an assault.

According to a 2007 Bureau of Justice Statistics survey, an estimated 60,500 inmates (4.5 percent of all Federal and State inmates) each year experience one or more incidents of sexual victimization involving other inmates or staff. And experts think official records of assaults in prison (both physical and sexual) only reflect 10 to 20 percent of all assaults that actually occur there.

Opposing rape in prisons doesn't make you a bleeding heart liberal. Justice Fellowship is the advocacy arm of the faith-based group Prison Fellowship -- hardly a bastion of liberalism -- and has been taking a lead on eliminating prison rape for years. Justice Fellowship's argument is as simple as it is powerful:  prisoners are human beings entitled to dignity and safety. Getting raped shouldn't be part of a prison sentence.