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Brutality behind bars

"Brutality behind bars" Continued...

Issue: "One president, under God," Feb. 3, 2001

The rape itself is just the beginning. Once released, rape victims bring AIDS into their communities, along with a flood of rage. Prison rape converts run-of-the-mill criminals-drug users, car thieves, and turnstile jumpers-into violent felons-in-waiting. Once released, they have a higher propensity to visit violence upon others. That's an ominous detail, given that the vast majority of prisoners are eventually released.

The reality of rape behind bars bloats the crime rate in other ways, as well. Michael Horowitz, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., says a federal judge told him that judges are reluctant to lock up small, white first offenders because they know what will happen to them. And a New York City detective told Mr. Horowitz that he knew of cops who routinely bullied information out of white boys or slightly built black kids, exploiting their fear of prison rape.

And yet, politicians and the mainstream media have largely ignored the problem of prison rape. They're about to be jolted awake.

Mr. Horowitz is about to apply the media equivalent of an electronic cattle prod against slow-moving lawmakers and journalists. A veteran of political wars over human-rights issues such as religious persecution, genocide in Sudan, and international sex trafficking (see sidebar), the feisty Mr. Horowitz is gathering together old allies from both the political right and left to begin fighting anew on behalf of prison rape victims.

These political soldiers may fight largely alone. Despite the magnitude of the problem, many other groups-even those committed to human rights-are reluctant to touch this issue. The reasons are disturbing. Civil-rights activists keep mum because prison rape is often a black-on-white phenomenon; they're afraid of feeding incipient racism. Gay-rights groups also shy away from the problem because they fear that publicity about male-to-male rape will advance the idea that homosexuals as a group are predators. The reality is that most prison rapists are heterosexual; they rape men partly because women are unavailable, and partly out of a desire to gain power in a setting that strips them of all normal authority over their lives.

And human-rights organizations? They're often dominated by feminists who appear to care far more about "politically correct" prison assaults: those involving male guards raping female prisoners, even though male victims vastly outnumber female victims.

Their help may become superfluous in any case if the Horowitz coalition succeeds in getting Congress to pass the Prison Rape Reform Act of 2001. The proposed legislation would provide for hearings to determine the impact of prison rape and establish standards for reducing and eliminating it. An Office of Prevention would gather reports of rapes, mandate the removal of juveniles from adult facilities, and develop what prison experts say is a crucial weapon in the war against assaults behind bars: a means of confidentially reporting complaints for action.

The legislation would also force accountability onto the shoulders of those who run America's prisons. Annual reviews of prisons would expose those with the highest rape rates; the people who run them would be forced to explain to Congress why they couldn't get the assaults under control.

At least one sheriff didn't need congressional prodding before attempting to reign in the rape epidemic. The San Francisco County Jail System has "the best program we found," Mr. Horowitz said. It's run by an unorthodox former attorney named Michael Hennessey. Some 20 years ago, Mr. Hennessey took part in a National Institutes of Mental Health study on prison rape; he then designed and implemented a protocol for dealing with the problem. "He's been able to observe firsthand the dramatic effect of having a very good prison rape protocol," said Roanne Withers of Fort Bragg, Calif., a former executive director of Stop Prisoner Rape.

The Hennessey tactics include separating violent and nonviolent offenders, and steering the vulnerable away from the dangerous. He designed two new jails to avoid "blind spots" where rapes are likely to take place, and developed a procedure for the treatment of rape victims. Those strategies are clearly working. In 1998, San Francisco's jails, with a daily population of about 2,000, had just nine reported rapes-far below the estimated national average.

If the public wonders why other sheriffs and prison officials don't seem to care about crimes against criminals, perhaps the answer can be found in a disturbing statistic uncovered by The Boston Globe six years ago. The Globe polled 400 registered Massachusetts voters, asking them if society accepts prison rape as part of the price criminals pay for breaking the law. Fifty percent answered yes. To put it bluntly, Americans don't care much about prisoner rape.

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