It is probably impossible to know exactly how many prisoners are raped behind bars. “According to the best available research,” reports JDI, “20 percent of inmates in men’s prisons are sexually abused at some point during their incarceration. The rate for women’s facilities varies dramatically from one prison to another, with one in four inmates being victimized at the worst institutions.” With some 2.3 million people behind bars in the U.S., the implications are nothing short of a human rights and public health epidemic.
I guess the main rationale for allowing this to continue is that because we use prison as a deterrent, then rape (as well as all of the other violence that goes on) would be an extension of that pressure. Of course it is barbaric, and so its allowance must be tacit. But there is a widespread cultural willingness to indulge in our own fantasies of vengeance. To the degree that we allow it, we are its perpetrators.
How we treat our prisoners is a powerful illustration of the incoherent way we think about human consciousness. We think they could have made different decisions, and so we lock them up. Yet the fact that prisons exist, and include such horrific conditions, seems an argument that deterrence doesn’t work – at least not for those that end up in prison. It seems the only evidence for deterrence working is the people who it pressured into not doing the crime.
So we have this massive population for whom deterrence did not work, and yet they are then forced to endure the punishment that ostensibly deters others. How could we show so little empathy? One reason I think is our willingness to indulge in vengeance.
It seems there are 3 main reasons for prison: deterrence, social protection, and rehabilitation. A fourth, perhaps falling under the category of deterrence, is punishment, more specifically social vengeance. As an emotion, it is purely selfish. Although it hides behind a facade of “justice”, all it really does is bring pleasure to the accuser. To the extent that it acts as a deterrent, it may be externally justified to a degree.
However its impulse is not driven by social policy considerations, but by basic emotional satisfaction. No one says, “I hope Bernie Madoff gets his in prison in order to deter future financial malfeasance.” The emotion is understandable, in that it comes from a sense of very real unfairness. But as a delivery of “justice”, it is little more than a satiation of emotional blood lust. In this respect, it isn’t really different than any other emotional satisfaction, such as sex, hunger or entertainment. This is evident in the rich history of literal revenge fantasy in popular entertainment.
The tragedy is that the criminal population, already a statistically disadvantaged demographic before landing in prison, becomes part of an organ of popular self-pleasuring. While each criminal represents an individual case of unfairness, the larger social stratification seems at least an equal injustice. And considering the inefficacy of prisons as social reform, as judged not only by their continued existence in such large numbers but by terrible recidivism rates, our stubborn refusal to reform them is absurd.