After far too long a delay, Congress may finally face America’s most-ignored crime problem. Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican, earlier this month reintroduced a bill to reduce the massive prison-rape crisis that touches nearly all of the 1.8 million Americans living behind bars. This year’s first hearings on the bill will take place Tuesday.
Any compassionate person should feel revulsion at the extent of prison rape. The activist group Stop Prisoner Rape estimates that about 240,000 men get raped behind bars each year. By comparison, 2002 saw about 90,000 male-on-female rapes reported to the police in the entire country. Jail house rape victims are often pre-trial detainees or petty criminals: Quite often small, weak, or effeminate men. Given that AIDS infection rates in prison populations stand at almost ten times the levels outside, the prison rape crisis means that an arrest for a minor crime can result in a death sentence. For people in prison, many of whom suffer from a variety of mental illnesses, a rape can send them over the edge into more serious criminal behavior. Most men on death row have a history of sexual abuse.
The bill takes some sensible middle-ground measures: It asks private accreditation agencies to set rape-prevention standards, gives states $40 million for rape-prevention grants, and tells the Department of Justice to begin collecting prison-rape statistics. It doesn’t require states to do anything: States that don’t think they have a prison-rape problem can simply decline to participate. (Although virtually every state does.) In fact, because it doesn’t establish new rights to sue, the ACLU and some other left-wing activist groups haven’t put their lobbying muscle behind it, instead arguing for the repeal of laws that limit prisoners’ access to the courts. The prison-rape crisis, however, developed while prisoners could file taxpayer subsided lawsuits when they got the wrong kind of peanut butter from the commissary. Even if it is a good idea to expand prisoner’s legal right, it would do little to solve the prison-rape crisis.
The bill, called the Prison Rape Reduction Act, will be money well spent. The total social costs of a single rape outside of prison run over a half million dollars. If the bill prevents even 100 rapes — and it will very likely prevent thousands — it will pay for itself twice. Protecting prisoners from being raped is just a recognition of their human rights: Not a way of coddling them. Wolf has long supported prison construction and other tough-on-crime measures Virginia Democrat Robert Scott, who cosponsors the bill is no softie either. The only losers will be people who deserve it: negligent prison administrators who let rapes occur on their watch. (Many of the worst prisons, in fact, encourage rape as a means of controlling unruly prisoners.) In fact, the simple fear of being called to Washington to answer questions about a higher-than-average prison-rape rate should get most prison administrators into line.
In fact, nobody even bothers to oppose the bill in public. Groups ranging from the NAACP and Amnesty International to Christian Coalition and Salvation Army have signed on to support it. And it will pass: Wolf told me last year that he would attach it to a defense appropriations bill if it didn’t appear to be moving through the congressional committee structure.
It’s rare that a bill so unobjectionable should face so much trouble: Even hot lunch for orphans could face a reasoned libertarian objection on the basis that it encourages dependency. But it’s difficult to argue against taking action to prevent rape. What else exactly is the state supposed to do? The Bush administration, which has not yet taken a public position on the bill, could win some low-cost political capital by moving front and center to support it. Minority communities, which have a disproportionate number of people both serving time and working in the correctional system, will welcome the bill and voters all over the country will get the message that the president cares. His base among religious conservatives is also firmly behind the bill. It’s a perfect compliment to his compassionate conservative agenda and, in its respect for state autonomy, very consistent with federalist principles. A few words from the president could get it moving and a Rose Garden signing ceremony would, to say the least, pay handsome political and moral dividends.
— Eli Lehrer is senior editor of The American Enterprise.