Sentenced to Rape: The Truth About American Justice

In March of 2005 Nicholas Kristof wrote a startling column for the New York Times telling the story of Mukhtaran Bibi, a young woman in Pakistan who was sentenced to rape by a “tribal council” following a “village dispute.”

Bibi’s story is absolutely horrifying. But should Americans be shocked? On October 12, The Times printed an editorial that revealed what those unwilling to look the other way already know: American prisoners are constantly victims of sexual abuse.

The reality is that criminals sentenced to incarceration in the U.S., many for nonviolent crimes, are being sentenced to a life where rape is a common and accepted occurrence. (If this statement seems sensationalist, please, withhold judgment until all the facts are considered.) One in five male prisoners have been sexually abused, and the rates for female prisoners “reach as high as one in four in some facilities” according to Stop Prisoner Rape, a national human rights organization.

Consider the experience of Roderick Johnson, an openly gay man formerly enlisted in the US Navy. Johnson was incarcerated for violating the terms of his parole when he bounced a check in Texas. (He had been sentenced to ten years of probation following his involvement in a burglary and had previously been incarcerated for failing to show up for his parole.)

When he was sent to jail for the second time, it was to a minimum-security prison. However, when two warnings did not cure his habit for hoarding prison clothes he was transferred to a maximum-security facility called Allred. Clearly, Johnson’s disregard for authority is disappointing. Yet these transgressions were hardly deserving of the nightmare that would follow.

After arriving at Allred, Johnson was immediately targeted by other inmates because he was a homosexual. He was bought and sold as a sex slave by prison gangs and was sexually abused “nearly every day for 18 months” according to the ACLU, who following his release took up his lawsuit against the prison officials who ignored his pleas for help.

Johnson filed grievances on several occasions but was told by prison officials to “fight or fuck.” Instead of helping they mocked him and accused him of enjoying being raped. On October 18th a jury in Texas ruled 10-2 in favor of the prison officials.

This case illustrates the despicable state of America’s prison system. Perhaps such rampant abuse ought not to come as a shocker at a time when the administration fights tooth and nail against any prohibition of torture in the war on terror. (Although in 2003, President Bush signed into law the Prison Rape Elimination Act after it was unanimously passed by both the House and Senate).

The PREA “calls for the gathering of national statistics about the problem; the development of guidelines for states about how to address prisoner rape; the creation of a review panel to hold annual hearings; and the provision of grants to states to combat the problem.” Although progress has been slow, the PREA represents a monumental step in the right direction. Still, in light of the jury’s ruling against Johnson, a renewed commitment must be made.

There seem to be two common rationales held by those indifferent to the plight of U.S. prisoners. The first is that prison shouldn’t be a nice place, so the abhorrent standard of life in prison serves as a necessary deterrent to would-be criminals. Those who subscribe to this logic need to consider exactly what they are saying. Rape is one of the most despicable things that one human can to another. To formally approve of it as a deterrent not only violates the eighth amendment’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment,” but ignores any sort of moral code. What sort of supposedly civilized society allows rape as a means to an end?

The second argument is that there is realistically very little that can be done to fix the problem. This is simply untrue.

The Human Rights Watch set forth a number of recommendations regarding this issue in 2001, many of which were included in the PREA. In addition to doing more research on the subject, funds must be directed to training programs for prison staff to be instructed on how to deal with incidents of rape. Prison administrators must convey that they are serious about investigating reported incidents. Prisoners complaining of abuse must be relocated. Prisoners at risk for sexual abuse (because of sexual orientation, race, size, etc.) must be monitored more closely. Neither high-risk prisoners nor known offenders should be placed in double cells.

Prisoner rape is not acceptable and it is not unsolvable. The current situation is a disgrace if Americans purport to live in a civilized society. Unfortunately, jokes about rape in prison abound, showing that the issue is no secret to the public.

Americans need to stand up for those who cannot defend themselves, regardless of past transgressions. Until we, as a nation, fully commit ourselves to this cause, our ideals of justice will remain out of reach.