Ramblings & ephemera

History & numbers on prison rape

From Daniel Brook’s “The Problem of Prison Rape” (Legal Affairs: March/April 2004):

In his 18 months at [the maximum-security Allred Unit in Iowa Park, Tex.], [Roderick Johnson, a 35-year-old African-American who is suing the Texas Department of Criminal Justice] did time as the property of the Bloods, the Crips, the Mandingo Warriors, and the Mexican Mafia, all of whom forced him to have sex with their members. They also sold his services to other inmates, usually for between $5 and $10. (A cigarette in Allred goes for $1.50.) …

The prevalence of rape in prison is fearsome. Line officers recently surveyed in one southern state estimated that one in five male prisoners were being coerced into sex; among higher-ranking officials, the estimate was one in eight. Prisoners themselves estimated one in three. (Female prisoners are the victims of rape as well, though they are usually assaulted by male guards, not other inmates; the phenomenon of male-on-male prison rape is generally studied separately.) …

The traditional rationale for prison rape is the lack of women, but most psychologists consider this facile. They see prison rape mainly as a means by which people who have been stripped of control over the most basic aspects of their lives – when to eat a meal, take a shower, or watch TV – can reclaim some sense of power. As one Louisiana prisoner, Wilbert Rideau, wrote, “the psychological pain involved in such an existence creates an urgent and terrible need for reinforcement of [a prisoner’s] sense of manhood and personal worth.” Others believe that prisoners become rapists out of fear of becoming victims themselves; it’s a choice between becoming predator or prey. The psychologist Daniel Lockwood, in his study Prison Sexual Violence, calls this strategy “pre-emptive self-defense.” …

IN 1826, IN WHAT WAS LIKELY THE FIRST PUBLISHED MENTION of prison rape in the history of the republic, the Rev. Louis Dwight wrote that “Boys are Prostituted to the Lust of old Convicts” throughout the institutions he surveyed from Massachusetts to Georgia. Dwight, the founder of the Prison Discipline Society of Boston, a prison reform group, wrote that “Nature and humanity cry aloud for redemption from this dreadful degradation.” It was not until the 21st century, however, that the nation saw its first anti-prison-rape legislation.

Last year, Congress passed the Prison Rape Reduction Act, which allocates $60 million to support rape-prevention programs run by federal, state, and local corrections staff and to aid investigations and punishment of perpetrators. The bill, which enjoyed bipartisan support in the House and the Senate, also requires states to collect statistics on prison rape.

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