Statistics are notoriously slippery, but the figures that suggest that violence has been disappearing in the United States contain a blind spot so large that to cite them uncritically, as the major papers do, is to collude in an epic con. Uncounted in the official tallies are the hundreds of thousands of crimes that take place in the country’s prison system, a vast and growing residential network whose forsaken tenants increasingly bear the brunt of America’s propensity for anger and violence.
Crime has not fallen in the United States—it’s been shifted. Just as Wall Street connived with regulators to transfer financial risk from spendthrift banks to careless home buyers, so have federal, state, and local legislatures succeeded in rerouting criminal risk away from urban centers and concentrating it in a proliferating web of hyperhells. The statistics touting the country’s crime-reduction miracle, when juxtaposed with those documenting the quantity of rape and assault that takes place each year within the correctional system, are exposed as not merely a lie, or even a damn lie—but as the single most shameful lie in American life.
From 1980 to 2007, the number of prisoners held in the United States quadrupled to 2.3 million, with an additional 5 million on probation or parole.
Victims in juvenile facilities, or facilities for women, have an even tougher time: usually it’s the guards, rather than the inmates, who coerce them into sex. The guards tell their victims that no one will believe them, and that complaining will only make things worse. This is sound advice: even on the rare occasions when juvenile complaints are taken seriously and allegations are substantiated, only half of confirmed abusers are referred for prosecution, only a quarter are arrested, and only 3 percent end up getting charged with a crime.
In January, prodded in part by outrage over a series of articles in the New York Review of Books, the Justice Department finally released an estimate of the prevalence of sexual abuse in penitentiaries. The reliance on filed complaints appeared to understate the problem. For 2008, for example, the government had previously tallied 935 confirmed instances of sexual abuse. After asking around, and performing some calculations, the Justice Department came up with a new number: 216,000. That’s 216,000 victims, not instances. These victims are often assaulted multiple times over the course of the year. The Justice Department now seems to be saying that prison rape accounted for the majority of all rapes committed in the US in 2008, likely making the United States the first country in the history of the world to count more rapes for men than for women.
America’s prison system is a moral catastrophe. The eerie sense of security that prevails on the streets of lower Manhattan obscures, and depends upon, a system of state-sponsored suffering as vicious and widespread as any in human history. Dismantling the system of American gulags, and holding accountable those responsible for their operation, presents the most urgent humanitarian imperative of our time.
Progressives lament the growth of private prisons (prisons for profit). But it’s sadism, not avarice, that fuels the country’s prison crisis. Prisoners are not the victims of poor planning (as other progressive reformers have argued)—they are the victims of an ideological system that dehumanizes an entire class of human being and permits nearly infinite violence against it. As much as a physical space, prisons denote an ethical space, or, more precisely, a space where ordinary ethics are suspended. Bunk beds, in and of themselves, are not cruel and unusual. University dorms have bunk beds, too. What matters is what happens in those beds. In the dorm room, sex, typically consensual. In prisons, also sex, but often violent rape. The prisons are “overcrowded,” we are told (and, in fact, courts have ruled). “Overcrowding” is a euphemism for an authoritarian nightmare.
While the attempt to count the number of rapes in America’s prisons is new, the problem is not. Alas, it’s one quite unlikely to go away because the overwhelming majority of Americans are perfectly happy to shift the risk of violent crime off our streets and out of our neighborhoods and into walled communities where people regarded as little more than vicious animals are housed. That they face a good chance of being raped while there is variously seen as fodder for jokes, the wicked getting their just desserts, or collateral damage. It’s virtually inconceivable that political will to do something about the problem will coalesce any time soon.
via Jimmy Gerrond