A Letter on Rape in Prisons

The following letter was received in response to Jason DeParle’s “The American Prison Nightmare” in the April 12 issue of The New York Review.

To the Editors:

Jason DeParle’s thoughtful and wide-ranging overview of American incarceration policy and its consequences hardly mentions rape in detention. Yet this is not a rare or trivial part of life behind bars. Neither is it, as some believe, an inevitable one.

Prisoner rape has been largely ignored: by journalists, advocates, policymakers, and researchers. The available data therefore, especially on its frequency, are not very good. Still, it is possible to have some notion of the problem’s magnitude. Recent studies of prisons in four midwestern states suggest that approximately 20 percent of male inmates are pressured or coerced into unwanted sexual contact; approximately 10 percent are raped.1 Rates of sexual abuse in women’s facilities, where the perpetrators are most likely to be male staff, seem to vary more by institution but are as high as 27 percent of inmates.2

Since the US now incarcerates more people than any other country, both relative to population and in absolute terms, these percentages translate into horrifying real numbers. The congressional authors of the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 (PREA), which DeParle does mention (and which is the only piece of federal legislation ever to address the issue), estimate in the bill’s “Findings” section that in the twenty years preceding its passage over one million inmates were victims of sexual abuse in American facilities. That number should be recognized as something of a guess; but in the absence of more authoritative studies, it does not seem unreasonable. Prisoner rape is arguably this country’s most serious human rights problem.

DeParle rightly criticizes the racial and class-based disparities in American sentencing, as well as our policy of incarcerating huge numbers of nonviolent drug offenders. He recognizes that imprisonment affects not only criminals but “the families they leave behind, and the communities to which they return.” Such astuteness is all the more reason to wish he’d given greater consideration to rape in prison, which exacerbates and complicates these problems and many others. DeParle notes some consequences of our incarceration policy for public health, and the disproportionate threat posed to minority neighborhoods. But he does not mention that rates of HIV/AIDS are several times higher inside our prisons than outside, just as they are now much higher among black Americans than white.

Nor does he mention that sex in prison, which is common, and almost always unprotected, is also often coercive; that as long as imprisonment even on minor charges can mean rape and HIV, it can and sometimes does amount to an unadjudicated death sentence. Discussing the disenfranchisement of felons, he writes that “as with many aspects of criminal justice, the United States is out of step with its international peers.” He fails to say that the sexual assault of prisoners, whether perpetrated by corrections officers or other inmates, in many cases constitutes torture under international human rights law—and…

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