The United States has the highest imprisonment rate of any developed country in the world. According to the Department of Justice, over two million people are incarcerated in the United States, higher than China or Russia. Of these two million individuals, Over 20% of these individuals are pretrial detainees or remand prisoners. For those who have been sentenced to live in prison, or those who do not yet know their fate within the criminal justice system, sexual assault is a specter that looms over the prison setting. While these individuals may have made mistakes, they are still individuals worthy of living in a safe, dignified setting. Furthermore, if prisons are supposedly a place that transforms individual behavior, it is essential these individuals be provided a safe space to reflect on their circumstance. However, the transformation of individuals that takes place is moe often negative than positive. One of the contributing factors to the negative experience of inmates is the threat of sexual assault in prison. The will of those who would act wickedly to their fellow inmates, or guards charged to maintain order and safety, leads to an environment which cultivates more hardened individuals and “post-release crime."
In a story put out by the ACLU, one female inmate named Dorothy describes the power that guards have in the lives of inmates. Guards are required to watch every aspect of a prisoner’s everyday life, including showering and going to the bathroom. Dorothy goes on to describe how one guard began to ask sexual favors from her in exchange for food and normal distribution of basic hygiene products. When she continued to refuse the guards advances, she was raped by him. Her report of the abuse fell on deaf ears as the administration chose not to investigate her case. Prison guards leverage their authority and status to take advantage of others, and do substantial physical and even greater psychological harm to those who they are ostensibly supposed to look after. Compounding the problem is the lack of reporting of these assaults that occur in prison. Sexual Assault disclosure is already a difficult issue with many victims, but reporting issues are amplified to an even greater degree in prison stemming largely from the, “ecology of incarceration.”
The psychological damage and humiliation that results from a sexual assault in prison from either a guard or another inmate has both short and long-term consequences to both the individual and to the wider community. Prison rape and sexual assault causes social, emotional, and cognitive stresses in the individual so severe, it sometimes leads to suicide. In other individuals, their victimization causes intense feelings of anger, not just at the perpetrator of an assault, but at the authority figures that were supposed to protect them. It leads these individuals to take on the characteristics of the perpetrator in order to reassert themselves, which occurs with the individual taking violent action against others in order to reassert themselves as strong individuals.Sexual assault is predominantly an act motivated by power and control. As such, a victim of prison rape lashing out is the reflection of the victim’s attempt to take back control of their situation.
It is unacceptable for the United States to have two million people incarcerated in its prison system. It's worse that the institutions meant to keep the public safe and reform these individuals is contributing to the further proliferation of violence in our communities. Our fear of people we deem dangerous and our desire to put them away in prisons creates fertile ground for retraumatization and violence of people within the criminal justice system which in turn, replicates itself in society at large.
Author: Natalie Thompson