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The human rights crisis in American prisons

By Scott Tibbs, July 20, 2009

In 2003, President George W. Bush signed the Prison Rape Elimination Act, seeking to put policy in place that would protect the basic human rights of prisoners that are too often violated in U.S. prisons. It is estimated that over 60,000 prisoners are raped annually in U.S. prisons. Many of these rapes are brutal gang rapes, often accompanied by vicious beatings. Some prisoners are murdered in the course of the assaults and others commit suicide to escape a life of sexual slavery and brutality. Too often, prison officials look the other way.

Too often, this is something that is glossed over, the subject of jokes rather than the subject of serious attention. Soft drink company 7-UP provoked outrage with a commercial making light of prison rape, and such "jokes" are far from rare. Furthermore, it is difficult to have sympathy for the worst criminals in prison. After all, many reason, who cares if someone like notorious serial killer Ted Bundy is abused by other inmates? Of course, many of the inmates subjected to abuse aren't mass murderers or serial rapists, but people who have committed far less serious crimes.

This is not just a concern for prisoners. One of the "findings of fact" in the law President Bush signed was that prison rape "increases the risks of recidivism, civil strife, and violent crime" by victims. This is common sense. When someone has been brutalized for years, he is much more likely to be looking to hurt others the way he has been hurt. This makes everyone less safe. If we are serious about reducing violent crime and protecting society, one of the most effective steps we can take is preventing serious violations of human rights behind bars.

Of course, society has a moral obligation to work towards eliminating prison rape to the greatest extent possible. We lock people up to protect society, but those prisoners still have basic human rights that deserve protection. This is why government is forbidden by the Constitution to use "cruel and unusual" punishments. Many people recoiled in horror at the abuses in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, but American citizens are subjected to much more severe abuse on a regular basis in our own prisons. A society that looks the other way when prisoners are repeatedly gang raped and dismisses brutality as a "lovers' quarrel" (as was the case with one Texas inmate who asked for protection, was ignored by prison staff, and was then subjected to a rape and beating that left him with severe injuries) should not be surprised when prisoners of war are abused.

Obviously, more needs to be done. There needs to be a zero-tolerance policy for prisoners who abuse other prisoners, and there must be severe consequences (including harsh criminal penalties) for prison guards and wardens who do not take requests for protection seriously. Even in a recession when revenues are down, government must invest in the technology, training and facility improvements that are needed to protect basic human rights of prisoners. If that means we need to cut spending elsewhere, then so be it. We have ignored this basic moral obligation for too long.

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