Prison Rape: How a difficult challenge is being addressed

NPR’s News & Notes recently had a segment addressing the harsh reality of rape in prison. In it host Farai Chideya spoke with a victim of prison rape, Keith Deblasio:

[W]hat tends to occur a lot of times in the prison environment is individuals who use threats, coercion to continue an assault relationship. In other words, it’s not quite what we see on “Oz,” where there’s a one-time. Those situations occur, but more common is the person who is in fear of their life who continues to submit on a regular basis. And that’s kind of, you know, what happened in my case, as this individual demonstrated that he was the leader of the Vice Lords, one of the two major gangs at the institution, and that he had even connections with staff that would allow him to do whatever he wanted to do and you just were not going to be safe. [...]

I think that there are many situations of consensual sex as well as just, you know, what borders between coercion and just bartering, you know. There’s a whole different environment inside a prison system, where there’s so many things denied to you and so many power positions within, you know, structures, that sometimes, whether it is an actual physical force, a coercion by threat, or coercion by, I need certain things to survive, or I need to feel protected, I need to feel comfortable, to then those who are completely consensual and those who may be, you know, prostituting within the institution to get cigarettes or whatever. So there’s the whole gamut of people who are exposed to infectious disease that way.

In 2003 Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act which has given prison authorities significant support in battling the problem. Deblasio says most prison authorities are working to stop it and my sense from working some with the Georgia system is that’s true. Less so, though, the public and the media.

Remember with me Ezra Klein in the LATimes noting that there’s nothing funny about prison rape:

Prison rape occupies a fairly odd space in our culture. It is, all at once, a cherished source of humor, a tacitly accepted form of punishment and a broadly understood human rights abuse. We pass legislation called the Prison Rape Elimination Act at the same time that we produce films meant to explore the funny side of inmate sexual brutality.

Occasionally, we even admit that prison rape is a quietly honored part of the punishment structure for criminals. When Enron’s Ken Lay was sentenced to jail, for instance, Bill Lockyer, then the attorney general of California, spoke dreamily of his desire “to personally escort Lay to an 8-by-10 cell that he could share with a tattooed dude who says, ‘Hi, my name is Spike, honey.’ “

One final point: we’re not talking about gay sex. Just as we have hopefully come to understand that rape is a crime of violence, it must also be understood that while this predatory sex as practiced in prisons include homosexual acts, these are not gay men in gay relationships.

These are coerced circumstantial acts. While it seems this should be obvious to anyone and everyone, I fear it’s not.