Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker may have used a state budget shortfall as an excuse to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights, but 44 states and DC are also facing a budget crisis. While they try to pinch every penny, prison reform is showing up on the table among Republicans and Democrats alike. Right alongside the issue should be the problem of prison rape, an epidemic in our system. With so much taxpayer money spent, addressing our astronomical rates of sexual abuse and the paltry options available for victims should be part of what we pay for. Until it is, sexual assault will continue to be seen as something that “just happens” to some people.
The United States prison population stands at over 2 million people, with the highest incarceration rate in the world – 743 per 100,000 of the national population. The costs of this system are dramatic. In 2006, governments at the federal, state and local level spent an estimated $68 billion on corrections. What happens to many of the people living behind bars is perhaps even more dramatic. In the New York Review of Books, David Kaiser and Lovisa Stannow expose the current state of abuse in the incarceration system (it’s definitely worth reading the whole article). Recent numbers published by the Justice Department found that more than 216,600 people were abused in 2008 – that’s almost 25 people an hour. These numbers are still likely lower than the real rates, the authors point out, because it’s hard to eliminate barriers to reporting – the shame some victims feel or the fear of relation from their attackers. Meanwhile, the numbers only count people who were abused, not the instances of abuse, which is far higher. The article notes, “Between half and two thirds of those who claim sexual abuse in adult facilities say it happened more than once; previous BJS [Bureau of Justice Statistics] studies suggest that victims endure an average of three to five attacks each per year.”
And while Law & Order: SVU may make it sound like most of this abuse is at the hands of fellow inmates (and disgustingly as if jailed people “deserve” such treatment), the reality is that most victims are abused by staff. As the authors point out, these are “agents of our government, paid with our taxes, whose job it is to keep inmates safe.” There is something extremely wrong with a system that uses so many tax dollars to pay such a great number of people who sexually assault those under their supervision.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Preventing abuse is a moral issue, but it also makes monetary sense. The Justice Department has come up with a very conservative value for preventing it, assigning only $375 to preventing an adult from experiencing “abusive sexual contact” and $500 for a juvenile. But in fact, Kaiser and Stannow point out that this is only one-fifth of the generally accepted benefit of preventing rape by force. It also leaves out the costs of spending on public assistance, like welfare, disability benefits, housing vouchers, and food stamps, to sexual assault victims who are unable to reenter society and maintain employment because of their long-term trauma – something the department acknowledges happens without quantifying what this means. It also neglects to factor in the savings incurred from reducing the recidivism rate, which it in fact notes “could potentially save society and government tens of millions of dollars per year by avoiding the economic and human costs of crime, the cost of investigating a prosecuting crimes, and the considerable cost of incarceration itself.” Reducing the rate of abuse in prison is likely to reduce the recidivism rate at the same time.
While a draft of standards to reduce abuse to be reviewed and implemented by Attorney General Eric Holder aims to reduce it by 3%, Kaiser and Stannow point out that this is a meager goal and one that could easily be ratcheted up. They suggest targeting the average rate of abuse in the top half of facilities that have already begun attempts at addressing rape – this would “give us an estimate of possible gains that was both realistic and conservative, based on what has already been accomplished across the country,” and far more could be done with explicitly stated standards. Meanwhile, achieving better rates doesn’t have to break the bank. They note:
The department could do much more than it is now proposing while remaining fiscally responsible. Many of its proposals can be improved at minimal cost. Other necessary measures will carry a significant price, but we do not believe they will be nearly as expensive as the department has estimated.
As we look to address our overcrowded prison system, it’s clear that much can be done to improve costs, sentencing, and other practices. With this must come a consideration of how we can keep a population literally trapped in its situation from being tormented by exposure to abuse. Letting our government – and the general population – turn a blind eye to the crisis of sexual assault on prisoners only serves to normalize rape in our society and enhance the idea that anyone could “deserve it.” Prisoners don’t deserve to be raped and anything that can be done to stop it from happening must be put into action. And it doesn’t just make moral sense; it also makes fiscal sense. The time for action is now.