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Prison Rape, a National Crisis

by Wes Messamore, published

Begging your indulgence for a very delicate question about a very serious and sensitive issue.  Who do you picture when you hear the words "rape victim?"  How old is the person?  What is their gender?  Do you imagine a twenty-something, female, college student?

One of the most commonly-used modifiers for the word "rape" is "date" as in "date rape." Other common modifiers are acquaintance rape, spousal rape, and statutory rape, but the most common form of rape in the United States is- prison rape.

According to Just Detention International, a Los Angeles-based advocacy group that seeks to end sexual abuse in all forms of detention, there are more men raped in the U.S. prison system than non-incarcerated women who are likewise assaulted, a harrowing fact about America's prison population, which numbers over two million, the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world.

An April 16, 2010 article at The Progressive, entitled "Time to end prisoner rape" notes that:

"Every year, more than 100,000 men, women and children are victimized while behind bars, usually by corrections officials whose very job it is to keep them safe. The U.S. attorney general is currently reviewing national standards aimed at preventing and addressing this type of abuse."  

Human Rights Watch verifies this shocking figure, actually putting the number closer to 140,000 prison rape victims annually. Despite the horror and shame of being victimized in this way, prison rape is a common theme in American humor. The "don't drop the soap" joke is ubiquitous in American culture and television comedies.

These kind of jokes normalize and downplay the seriousness of prison rape, and imply that it is to be expected or even somehow acceptable, but this is no laughing matter. In 2003, Congress even recognized prison rape as a national crisis with its passage of the U.S. Prison Rape Elimination Act.

Any serious attempt at prison reform cannot leave this problem unsolved. At the beginning of April this year (which is National Sexual Assault Awareness Month), President Obama said:

"During National Sexual Assault Awareness Month we recommit ourselves not only to lifting the veil of secrecy and shame surrounding sexual violence, but also to raising awareness, expanding support for victims and strengthening our response."

And there is no better way to accomplish this end than to have a serious national discussion about prison rape and how to incorporate solutions to prison rape into comprehensive prison and safety reform.

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