In June of 2012, the New York Times “Room for Debate” feature considered whether or not convicted youth offenders should be treated differently than adult convicts in the penal system. Those in favor of trying some youth offenders in adult courts included a victims’ advocate, and an attorney from the conservative Heritage Foundation; those against included an inmate at California’s San Quentin prison, and a human rights activist. The victims’ advocate and the attorney from the Heritage Foundation talked about extreme cases of violence and the benefits of stern consequences. The inmate and the human rights activist talked about rape.
“The suicide and sexual abuse rates of younger prisoners are higher than those of the physically mature,” Gary Scott, the inmate, noted: “how can rehabilitation be possible in such a dangerous environment?” Scott was incarcerated at age sixteen.
T.J. Parsell, the human rights advocate, put it like this: “In early 2003, I testified on Capitol Hill with Linda Bruntmyer, a mother from Texas whose 17-year-old son was incarcerated after setting a trash bin on fire. In prison, he was raped repeatedly. He later hanged himself inside his cell. I felt a special bond with Linda, because I too had been raped in prison at 17.”
Taken together, the accounts of the carceral system featured in the Times’s roundtable on youth offenders span the entire American conception of prison itself. On one hand, prisons are understood as the terminus at the end of a long line of injustices adjudicated by a cold bureaucracy. On the other hand, American prisons are infamous for their brutality, especially when it comes to sexual violence. Being sent to prison is, in this sense, not the conclusion of the criminal justice process but the beginning of long-term torture.
That prisons routinely house thousands upon thousands of instances of sexual exploitation and rape is at the very least tolerated, and at most subtly appreciated as part of their punitive purpose. Our collective meh at the bracing reality of prison rape may be partially premised on the fact that the problem seems contained; but like most severe sicknesses, it only appears that way, and not for long.
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Following the passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) of 2003, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), an office within the Department of Justice, has conducted various surveys of inmates, former inmates and incarcerated youths to calculate the number of prison rapes occurring annually. BJS surveys conducted between 2011 and 2012 found that 32 people per 1,000 were sexually abused in jail; forty people per 1,000 were sexually abused in prison; and ninety-five youths per 1,000 were sexually abused in juvenile detention facilities. In contrast, the National Crime Victimization Survey, also a product of the BJS, found that the rate of rape and sexual assault among free women was 1.3 per 1,000 females over the age of 12 in 2012, meaning that a prisoner’s likelihood of becoming a victim of sexual assault is roughly thirty times higher than that of any given woman on the outside. Allen J. Beck, a senior statistician at BJS, confirmed to The New York Review of Books that nearly 200,000 people total were sexually violated in American detention facilities in 2011. One of the persistent myths surrounding sexual violence inflicted upon prisoners is that other inmates are chiefly responsible; according to the BJS, inmates in state and federal prisons and local jails all reported greater rates of sexual victimization involving staff than other inmates. Despite all this, sexual assaults that take place within prisons are generally not factored into national crime statistics, as if they are somehow expected.