Today’s New York Times carries an AP report containing accusations that state employees raped female prison inmates assigned to work at the state governor’s mansion. Since the rapes allegedly happened, literally, in the backyard of a state’s chief executive, they’re clearly newsworthy. And the horrific details — the victims were dragged into a shed, held down, and sexually abused — make the story even more sympathetic. Although the victims’ identities are being withheld, the fact they received work details outside of prison walls in close proximity to high state officials indicates that the victims were almost certainly serving short sentences for non-violent crimes. (Two are already free and, of course, even murderers don’t deserve sexual abuse.) Events like these, sadly, aren’t unheard of. Sexual abuse of female inmates at the hands of male prison employees happens all over the country. When it becomes public, sympathetic media coverage understandably follows.
As terrible as the alleged attacks in Oklahoma were, however, they are the exception. Most prisons with female inmates carefully monitor male guards and severely discipline those who so much as wink at inmates. When attacks do happen, they’re dealt with harshly. All this makes sense. But if the reaction to sexual abuse of female inmates is basically sensible, the nation’s ability to deal with similar things that happen to men in prison still needs a lot of improvement. If national trends hold, several hundred men were raped in Oklahoma prisons — many repeatedly — during the period that a handful of women were also the victims of horrible attacks. Almost all of the attacks on men in prison happen at the hands of fellow inmates. Prison authorities and racial-supremacist gangs, furthermore, often use sexual abuse as a management tool to keep unruly prisoners in line.
While prison and jail authorities, after years of ignoring them, are finally paying close attention to the problem of male-on-male sexual violence behind bars, the incredibly unfunny issue still remains an acceptable topic for sitcom jokes. The nation deals with assaults against female inmates sensibly. Attacks on male inmates — even those guilty of horrible crimes — deserve the same type of treatment.
— Eli Lehrer is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.