Prison rape — it's no joke
Op Ed piece in the Washington Times
Sept 6, 2002
by Pat Nolan
"The opposite of compassion is not hatred, it's indifference." These words were written by a prisoner who was severely beaten after refusing demands for sex from another inmate.
While often the subject of jokes on late-night TV, prison rape is no laughing matter. It has terrible consequences, not just for the inmates who are brutalized, but for our communities as well. The rate of HIV in prisons today is 10 times higher than in the general population. Every rape in prison can turn a sentence for a nonviolent crime into a death sentence.
Prison rape leads to other types of death, also. Rodney Hulin set a dumpster on fire in his neighborhood. Despite being only 16 years old, he was sentenced to eight years in an adult prison, where he was repeatedly beaten and raped. Despite his pleas for help, no one in authority intervened to help him. He was told to fend for himself. Depressed and unwilling to face the remainder of his sentence at the mercy of sexual predators, Rodney Hulin committed suicide. Similar suicides have occurred in jails and prisons across the United States.
Experts estimate that at least one in 10 inmates is raped in prison. Because 95 percent of prisoners will eventually be released back into our communities, the horrors that occur inside prison have consequences for the rest of us, too.
Some who suffer through brutal rapes become predators themselves, both in prison and after their release, subjecting other innocent victims to the same degradation that they experienced. Or they vent their rage in other acts of violence, often racially motivated. One example is the tragic story of James Byrd, the black man who was picked up by three white supremacists, beaten, chained to the back of their pickup truck and dragged for three miles to his death. One of his assailants was John William King, a burglar who had recently been released after serving a three-year sentence in one of Texas' toughest prisons.
When King arrived at the prison, a group of white supremacists reportedly conspired with the guards to place King in the "black" section of the prison. At just 140 pounds, King was unable to defend himself against a group of black prisoners who repeatedly gang-raped him. This was exactly what the white power gang wanted. Filled with hatred, King was easily recruited into their group for protection. Over the remainder of his sentence, they filled King's head full of hatred for blacks. When he was released, John King unleashed that pent-up hatred on James Byrd. The gang-rapes he endured in prison are no excuse for his murder of James Byrd, but they certainly help us understand what could lead him to hate so much.
As troubling as the incidence of rape is, equally disturbing is the attitude of many government officials who are indifferent to it. When asked about prison rape, Massachusetts Department of Correction spokesman Anthony Carnevales said, "Well, that's prison . . . I don't know what to tell you." In that offhand remark, he was expressing what many feel in their hearts but are loathe to admit — "they deserve it."
But they don't deserve it. Regardless of the crimes they have committed, no offender's sentence includes being raped while in the custody of the government. By its very nature, imprisonment means a loss of control over the circumstances in which inmates live. They cannot choose their neighbors ( i.e., their cellmates), nor arm themselves, nor take other steps to protect themselves. Because the government has total control over where and how inmates live, it is the government's responsibility to make sure they aren't harmed while in custody.
Sens. Kennedy and Sessions and Reps. Wolf and Scott have teamed up to sponsor the "Prison Rape Reduction Act of 2002," S. 2619 and H.R. 4943, which would establish standards for investigating and eliminating rape, and hold the states accountable if they fail to do so.
Winston Churchill said that the manner in which a society treats criminals "is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilization of any country." As Congress rushes to complete its work before the election recess, it is important that they take the time to deal with the scandal of prison rape, and, in doing so, meet Churchill's test of a civilized society.
Pat Nolan is president of the Justice Fellowship, a non-profit group based in Reston, Va.