A report recently issued by the Department of Justice detailed increased rates of sexual violence in U.S. prisons. Quoting from an article in The New Standard:
Based on the records of system officials, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported that 6,241 incidents of sexual misconduct and violence took place in 2005, or almost 3 violations per 1,000 inmates nationwide. Fifty-five percent of incidents were described by the report as “sexual misconduct” or “sexual harassment” perpetrated by staff against inmates, while 45 percent involved inmate-on-inmate “coerced sex acts” or “abusive sexual contact.”
This information has the potential to feed into a number of common misconceptions about rape and men in prison. They should be addressed before getting into the implications of the report itself.
First of all, we only hear about male survivors of sexual assault within the context of prison (we all know the “don’t drop the soap” joke). This is a convenient way for us to distant ourselves from the reality that men are raped outside of prison cells, in our communities, by fathers, community leaders, brothers, cousins, friends, lovers. Statistics on prison rape can also feed into a second misconception - of men in prison. Not all men in prison are violent and hyper-sexualized, or submissive and taken advantage of. Consensual sex does occur in prison, and as The New Standard addresses in their article, more often than not the violence is born from the institution and its staff rather than from prisoners - beyond rape committed by prison guards there is the more institutional rape of the standard strip-search.
This isn’t to overshadow the fact that sexual violence is a problem in prison, or as I would argue, an inherent aspect of prison – and with women being the fastest growing prison population, it clearly tortures women prisoners as well. But by quoting The New Standard article once again, we see that by focusing on prison reform we may miss the larger questions:
Vanessa Huang of Justice Now, a California-based advocacy group for female prisoners, said that activists should avoid “just focusing on the conditions of confinement” and instead view incidents of sexual abuse as an outgrowth of “structural” power imbalances – both inside and outside prison walls – along lines of race, class, gender and sexuality. In her view, “Imprisonment is fundamentally a violent system.”
As long as power is held by one so fiercely over another, whether by men over women, or by institutions like prison over their inmates, the dynamic will be recreated in the most intimate of ways – against our bodies. Our response to rape in prison cannot be only to push for more counseling services for prisoners, or more segregated housing units, but must include questioning the way we address crime in this society, and the role of the prisons themselves in creating this crime.
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