The Rape Victims No One Wants to Hear About: Prisoners

Rape might be a serious problem on the college campus and in the military barracks, but even these places pale in comparison to the place where rape is most pervasive.

Yet, in the place where rape is most pervasive it is also most ignored, unless it is as the punchline to a joke: That is our state and federal penitentiaries.

Almost everyone knows that it has been going on for years. The highest estimates suggest that up to a quarter of male inmates have been raped. While Congress has passed legislation which is meant to address the issue of prison rape, the crisis is still pervasive. One reason is the lock-and-leave philosophy of detention facilities where corrections officers have no strong incentives to intervene. It is difficult enough to control the entire population without regulating the relationships between them. When Human Rights Watch released its No Escape report in 2001, there were several states which did not even keep reports on sexual violence in prisons. 

While prison rape is a crime — and should be no less a crime than raping someone outside of prison — it is difficult to punish. Sometimes the prisoner who becomes the dominant partner — or sometimes “slaveholder” — in a non-consensual sexual relationship will already have a considerable prison sentence. It is difficult to intimidate such a prisoner by adding on to the sentence he already has.

The larger problem, though, is the broad acceptance of prison rape in contemporary society. As Joe Carter pointed out last year: “While jokes about conventional rape are always considered in bad taste, humor about prison rape is common. Television and film frequently make jokes about sexual assault in prison. And last year John Sebelius, the son of Kathleen Sebelius ... created a board game called Don’t Drop the Soap.”

Prison rape is a difficult problem, but not one without resolutions. Within a prison population, it is easier to detect guilt in rape cases because the pool of usual suspects is already limited and most prisoners have fingerprints and DNA on record. Rather than dealing with the issue through adding to the rapists’ sentences, it might be time to consider options such as chemical castration. But the most important step will be for the public to begin taking the issue seriously. Dropping the soap isn’t funny when you are the one who has to bend over to pick it up.