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From the Editor

by Paul Wright

For long time readers of PLN, this month’s issue may seem like déjà vu all over again with its national coverage of prisoners being raped, especially by guards and prison staff. For many years I wrote the “News in Brief” column and would print out the articles I found NIB worthy. At the end of the month I’d go through them and pick the ones to use in the next issue. There were, and still are, a lot of short news articles about prison and jail staff being charged, convicted and sentenced for raping prisoners. I strove for diversity of story topics and didn’t want the NIB column to turn into the “prisoners getting raped” column of PLN. I would pick out a few cases to use in that issue’s NIB and put the rest to the side to use in the following month.

But each month there were more sexual assault stories than I could use so the pile of news articles kept getting bigger. All this was happening without looking for these types of stories, just printing the ones I ran across while reviewing the news wires related to prisons and jails. At the end of the year I had a stack of prison rape stories about a foot high and this was after using five or six in every issue of PLN for the NIB column, and doing actual articles on the more egregious cases. That is how the first compilation story on prisoner rape came into being. Articles about staff being charged with raping prisoners are so frequent in the news media that PLN could easily devote ten or fifteen pages in each issue to the topic and still only scratch the surface.

While the Prison Rape Elimination Act gets a fair amount of attention, it should be viewed for what it is, a very weak and tiny first step to quantify the prevalence of prison rape that does little to prevent it and gives the rape victims no actual rights. The main thing PREA has done with its self-reported data collection is reveal that over half of reported prison rapes are sexual assaults carried out by prison and jail staff, and many of the perpetrators are women employees.

In many ways I liken prison rape to be, politically and culturally, where the rape of women was 50 or 60 years ago. It is the last bastion where sexual assault can still be publicly “joked” about or viewed as “funny” in mainstream political culture and also where sex offenders and rapists are coddled with lackluster prosecutions and light sentences, as long as prisoners are the victims and government employees are doing the raping on the taxpayer’s dime. Because most prison rape victims are men, there is additional stigma around it. For decades the Human Rights Defense Center and other activists have urged the FBI to include prison-based rapes in their crime statistics. They have declined to do so. Including prison rapes in official statistics would likely mean that more men than women are officially raped in the U.S. each year. Based on the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report that estimated 139,380 rapes were reported to law enforcement in 2018. As this month’s cover story points out, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) indicates each year roughly 200,000 prisoners are victims of sexual assault.

The sexual assault of women prisoners remains an ongoing outrage as well. When the #MeToo movement got started I kept hoping they would include the narratives, the well documented stories, of the thousands of women prisoners who are raped by guards each year, often with impunity. Alas, I am still waiting. The victimization of poor women prisoners by government employees is apparently not a convenient narrative for people in a position of wealth or power.

Anyone reading this month’s cover story, remember that this is only the tip of the iceberg. Thousands of prison and jails rapes are reported each year in news media, usually at the local level, and who knows how many more are never reported. PREA started out as the Prison Rape Reduction Act and apparently the wizards in Congress determined that rape is something that should be eliminated and not just reduced, so they changed the name of the bill. Sadly, they have done neither.

Steps to actually reduce prison and jail rapes would include giving sexual assault victims actual independent rights to sue and hold government officials accountable for the rapes. This would include repealing the Prison Litigation Reform Act and allowing for supervisory liability, among other changes. Politically and culturally, the rape of men and prisoners has to be viewed as the crime of power and violence that it is, just as it is finally recognized as such for women who are not locked in a government cage. Rapes committed by staff need to be treated as the abuses of power that they are, yet many government employees seem to treat raping the prisoners in their care as a job perk. Adding to the outrage is they are committing these sexual assaults while on the government payroll. Generally, rapists are not being paid by the taxpayers to commit crimes.

Eliminating prison rape is unlikely to happen anytime soon. But PLN will keep raising the issue and reporting on it so that the world knows both the ongoing scope and depth of this human rights outrage.

If you have not donated to our annual fundraiser, please do so. We rely on donations to carry out much of the advocacy work we do above and beyond publishing our books and magazines. During the COVID pandemic we have all been working extra hard to keep up with news reporting, litigation, advocacy and more.

For the past 12 years or so, HRDC has distributed the Diabetes Manual, a booklet aimed at prisoners with diabetes. We ran out of the last copies we had and Dr. Michael Cohen is in the process of writing an updated version for us. As soon as it is available, we will advertise it in PLN and Criminal Legal News. If you wrote and requested a copy and did not receive one, it is because it is out of print.

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