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Overcrowded Prisons Essay

We all know that our prisons are the final frontier for the socially rejected criminals and violent offenders. We know that our prisons are so overcrowded that the Supreme Court of California issued a court order to reduce the number of inmates. We know that since there are more inmates in prison the chance of getting rehabilitated is very slim. And we also know that the ratio of supervision of guard to inmate is extremely high. But do we know what goes on in our prisons and jails? We know we have prison gangs, drugs, assaults, robberies, and even murders in prison.

But what happens when you mix an overcrowded prison or jail with violent, drug using, angry, abusive, gang related men with the average person who is in prison or jail for the first time. The result is an aggressive sexual act known as inmate rape. The fight against rape in our communities is doomed to failure and will continue so as long as it ignores the network of training grounds for rapists: our prisons, jails and reform schools. For too long, we have turned away from the rape crisis in these institutions, which now hold 1. 3 million men and boys.

In most of them, rape is an entrenched tradition considered by prisoners a legitimate way to `prove their manhood’ and to satisfy sexual needs and the brutal desire for power. The exact number of sexually assaulted prisoners is unknown, but a conservative estimate, based on two decades of surveys, is that more than 290,000 males are sexually assaulted behind bars every year. By comparison, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that there are 135,000 rapes of women a year nationwide, though many groups believe the number is higher. (Mezey and King, 1995).

Inmate rape is not a sexually motivated act but instead constitutes a sexual expression of aggression. Once victimized, a prisoner is marked as a continual target for sexual attack and is repeatedly subjected to gang rapes, or must trade submission to one or more men in exchange for protection from the rest. Very few of these rapes are ever reported to administrators, much less prosecuted. If a prisoner is middle-class, not `street-wise,’ not affiliated with a gang, not part of the racial or ethnic group that dominates his institution or held in a big city jail, he is likely to be a target. (Scacco, 1992).

The victims are usually heterosexuals who are forced into a passive sexual role, though the relatively few known homosexuals are perhaps three times as likely to be raped. The assailants are almost always heterosexual by preference; thus the phrase `homosexual rape’ is extremely misleading. Being a male inmate victim of rape is traumatizing since he is devalued in regard to the two primary sources of his identity: sexuality and aggression. Sexual abuse has a special meaning for the male victim. Their gender identity and gender image is tarnished by the use which another male had with their body.

Ben-David, 1993). Though the problem has not been adequately studied, sexual attack among female prisoners is thought to be much rarer; women are, however, far more likely to be sexually abused by guards. The catastrophic experience of sexual violence usually extends beyond a single incident, often becoming a daily assault. Psychologists and rape counselors believe that the pent-up rage caused by these assaults can cause victims, especially if they don’t receive psychological treatment, to erupt in violence once they return to their communities.

Some will become rapists, seeking to `regain their manhood’ through the same violent means by which they believe it was lost(Nacci,1984). In this way, our prisons, jails and detention centers can set in motion a truly vicious cycle, turning nonviolent detainees and minor offenders into far more serious dangers to society exactly the opposite function our `correctional institutions’ are supposed to serve. Even an attempted sexual attack that is warded off — a typical experience for a `fresh fish,’ or first-time prisoner — can be severely traumatic, besides being a chief cause of serious injury behind bars.

Cotton, 1982). While prison officials privately concede the existence of this` pattern of abuse, prisoner victims are ignored in national rape statistics and estimates, and little has been done to stop the attacks. A primary reason is that the rape of men has long been a taboo subject, frightening victims away from even acknowledging that they have been attacked and asking for help(Starchild, 1990). While some prison system professionals want to address the problem, most prefer to ignore it; leading it to be a life-and-death issue in the age of AIDS.

The public and the media, however, are finally becoming more sensitive to sexual abuse behind bars and more willing to break through these old taboos. The courts are also beginning to order wardens and sheriffs to protect the prisoners. In July [1993], for example, the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit upheld an injunction that required the Glades Correctional Institution in Belle Glade, Fla. , to establish a training program to educate its staff about prisoner rape. The program is the first of its kind in the country.

Following the recent unanimous U. S. Supreme Court decision in Farmer v. Brennan, a historic case which has established the state of the law at the highest level, People Organized to Stop the Rape of Imprisoned Persons a Ft. Bragg based advocacy group, founded in 1979, believes that legal action is one of the most hopeful means of achieving changes which would lessen the frequency of prisoner rape and improve conditions for those who have already been victimized but are still behind bars. (P. O. S. R. I. P. 998)

The state of the law with regard to the legal obligations of confinement institutions to prevent sexual assault of prisoners is changing. State taxes will grow because civil litigation regarding institutional liability is increasing. Since 1979 prisoner victims have been winning some substantial money damages ($380,000 in one case) from institutions being sued for violation of prisoners’ federal civil rights under the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the Eighth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution.

These suits are based upon a “failure to protect” together with “deliberate indifference” on the part of institution officials. This standard was first upheld for sexual assaults by the U. S. Supreme Court in Smith v. Wade (1983) and was further elaborated in Farmer. Another approach to prisoner rape was launched when the Safer Society Press of the New York State Council of Churches published the Prisoner Rape Education Project, a manual and two audiotapes of practical advice for prisoners and staff on avoidance and survival of prisoner rape.

One of the manual’s most important recommendations is that condoms, now available in New York City jails but still contraband in the New York State system, be made available to victims of rape who have paired off with stronger prisoners for their own protection, as most of them do, so that these victims can avoid turning survival-driven sex from a degrading necessity into a possible death penalty. (Barden, 1997).

It is argued that prison rapes will not decrease unless attempts are made to reduce the prison population, humanize the conditions of prison life, provide training on human sexuality to prison staff, and provide furloughs and treatment services to inmates to foster appropriate expressions of sexuality. (Rothenberg 1993. ) Rape, which no judge has ever declared a fit penalty for a crime, is inflicted daily on prisoners whose sole offense may have been their inability to make bail.

When will the attacks end? Not until the public turns its eyes back to the walls that were built and are maintained at great expense by taxpayers to promote the public safety. Not until all staff members are trained more effectively to prevent rape and to respond sympathetically to victims. Not until all new prisoners are given practical advice on avoidance. And not until prisoners, with the support of administrators, organize themselves and take responsibility for ending this horror.

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