Victims of Sexual Assault in America’s Prisons Deserve Advocacy and Support

Last week, the Pentagon released a frightening report stating that incidents of sexual assault in the military have increased dramatically, from 19,300 in 2010 to 26,000 in 2012, a spike of 35%. This has, quite justifiably, sparked disgusted commentary?and impassioned calls?for legislative action.?President Obama and Secretary Hagel reacted forcefully, vowing to confront this barbarism, for which the president rightly declared he has “no tolerance.”

Momentum is building among the media, the public, Congress, and the Pentagon to combat this horrifying wave of sexual crime. It’s a national disgrace that is finally receiving the attention it deserves; this Pentagon report is so appalling that our leaders will probably have no choice but to take concrete action. There is cause to be optimistic here. The problem will obviously not disappear overnight, and even one incident of sexual assault in the military is one too many, but at least it’s in the political spotlight now.

Few things in a decent society should be given higher priority than combating sexual violence and advocating for the victims of such brutality. We should use this story to remind ourselves, though, that there is still one class of American citizens who we know are being victimized by sexual assault every day, in shocking numbers, without it causing any discernible outrage. When the epidemic of sexual violence among this particular class of citizens does arise in the public consciousness, it’s usually in the context?of . . . humor.

These victims are the luckless souls currently locked in America’s prisons.

Precise statistics are difficult to come by because, according to the?National Prison Rape Elimination Commission,?”the stigma of sexual assault often leads to under-reporting of incidents and denial by many of the victims.” The figure of 200,000 incidents per year seems to be accepted among experts as the low end. In 2008, according to the Department of Justice, more than 209,400 people in prisons, jails, and juvenile detentions were victimized by sexual assault.

In the Prison State, as anywhere else, the victims of sexual crimes are the most vulnerable, as Just Detention International, a human rights organization focused on this issue, points out:

In particular, inmates who are gay, transgender, young, mentally ill, or incarcerated for the first time and for nonviolent offenses tend to be victimized.

This is a crucial point to communicate, in order to combat the natural tendency to ignore cases of injustice in which the victims happen to be Bad Guys who are simply too Evil to even deserve sympathy, never mind advocacy. I don’t personally agree with this; I think respect and dignity?should be afforded to all people, no matter how monstrous they may be. But, in this case, that’s immaterial, because most of the victims here are not Monsters, but are in fact some of the very same marginalized classes of people who, in other contexts, receive solidarity and advocacy from progressives: LGBT people, the sick, the young, and so on. Many victims are non-violent or first-time offenders. In any case, minimal standards of decency demand that we advocate for the most troubled and endangered members of our society, and who fits that description more than a gay teenager, or someone with a mental illness, whose daily existence involves both being locked in a cage and being stalked by sadistic criminals?

Fortunately, progress is being made on this front. Last May, the Obama administration released its implementation plan for the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), meant to confront this problem and reduce sexual assault in prisons. Advocacy groups were generally pleased with the plan, which included many of the provisions for which they had spent years fighting, like?independent audits, better protections for vulnerable inmates, and limits on pat-down searches. Prisons and other correctional institutions all over the country are supposed to be in full compliance with the new standards by August; failure to comply, though, will result not in legal action, but in a fairly modest reduction in federal funds to states. Specifically, states that fail to comply?with PREA face a 5% cut to ?any Department of Justice grant funds that the state would otherwise receive for prison purposes.??Implementing the new standards across the country will be a struggle; it remains to be seen if this funding threat will be substantial enough in a time of fiscal crisis for so many states and counties. Already, implementation is not going particularly smoothly?in many states and localities, but in the course of doing research for this post, I did not come across any officials who are explicitly intending to ignore the new standards.

Increased public consciousness and political pressure could force states and localities to take sexual violence in correctional institutions seriously and implement these standards. Right now, all the important work on this issue is basically being shouldered by a small number of advocacy groups, like Human Rights Watch and Just Detention International. It’s a miracle that this law was even passed and is now on the verge of being implemented, given the unconscionable lack of awareness about an institutional injustice of this scale. I haven’t seen any mainstream media coverage of this; presumably, prisoners just don’t fit the ideal victim profile. But surely Dostoevsky, someone with a profound and unimpeachable sense of moral integrity,?was correct in saying?that “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Prisoners should not be left to the wolves simply because they were once convicted of a crime. They deserve the same protection from sexual violence as everyone else, and public vigilance on the implementation of this law over the next few months could go a long way toward ensuring that they finally receive it.

Edited by CB

My writing has appeared on AlterNet, Common Dreams, CounterPunch, and I have an M.A. in public policy from Stony Brook University and a B.A. in political science from Coastal Carolina University.