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Prison rape: myths and misconceptions

by Wes Messamore, published

Earlier this year, CAIVN alerted you to the crisis of prison rape.

Though it receives little attention from mainstream news sources, the rape of prison detainees by other inmates and even corrections officials has reached crisis proportions in a country with the highest incarceration rate in the world.  Indeed, Human Rights Watch estimates that 140,000 prison inmates are victims of rape every year, making it the most prevalent kind of rape in the country, more common than date rape, more common than acquaintance rape, and more common than statutory rape.

Yet, myths and misconceptions about prison rape persist in the popular culture, and must be corrected if America is to make any progress on this most serious of human rights abuses.

One reason prison rape receives little attention in the media is the myth that victims of rape are always or at least usually female. While that may be the popular conception, there are more male victims of rape in America each day than there are female victims, and most of those victims are inmates.

Another common misconception is that only gay men are the victims or perpetrators of rape in prison, which is false on both counts. The majority of men who engage in sexual activity with other males while incarcerated self-identify as heterosexual. Prisoners often use rape as a form of dominance, rather than for the sake of sex itself.

While studies have shown that homosexuals are more likely to be targeted as victims of rape in prison, there are multiple other factors that greatly increase the likelihood of victimization. Younger men for instance, are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted in prison according to Just Detention International.

The most pernicious misconception about prison rape is that the victims somehow “deserve it,” which is perhaps the most critical factor in society’s vague feeling of indifference toward it. The subject is even trivialized as humorous with an entire subgenre of comedic references to prison rape.  Some people will even overtly suggest that inmates deserve whatever happens to them in prison because of the crimes they’ve committed, while others shrug prison rape off as something to be expected. This is false for multiple reasons.

To begin with, not everyone in prison is guilty. Time and again, wrongfully incarcerated inmates have been exonerated by new testimony, evidence, or DNA analysis. It would be horrifying enough to suffer incarceration for a crime that you did not commit. How much more horrifying would it be to suffer rape as well?

Second, it is false to group all inmates together as “evil” and deserving of one of the most terrible and traumatic experiences that could ever happen to a person. Many inmates are there for non-violent crimes like carrying a small amount of marijuana, underage drinking, or petty theft.

In California, it’s possible for offenses like these to land someone in prison for life because of the state’s strict Three Strikes Law. The reality is that most prison rape victims are assaulted by someone who’s serving time for committing more violent crimes than the victim did.

Last of all, even society’s worst criminals do not deserve to be raped in prison. Rape is no less than torture, and no sitting judge in this country would prescribe rape or torture as a punishment for even the worst crimes.

In America, we have a Constitution that prohibits cruel and unusual punishment- which would include rape. We also believe in the rule of law, which means that individuals are only to be tried and sentenced by a jury of their peers in a civil court, according to an objective and fair process.  Punishments are not to be doled out haphazardly by vigilantes- especially not deranged, violent criminals in prisons- to satisfy someone else’s perverse sense of justice.

If America purports to lead the world in its recognition of basic human rights and civil liberties, we cannot continue to ignore this urgent moral crisis happening in our nation's prisons. We have to do something to stop prison rape now.

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