The New York Review of Books has just published a lengthy letter by David Kaiser, the president of Stop Prisoner Rape, in response to a piece by Jason DeParle on the U.S. prison system.The letter is important in that it once again focuses attention on a state of affairs that has remained a national disgrace for far too long, but more than that it offers a number of useful suggestions including better educational facilities (yes, it shouldn’t be necessary to say this, but they matter..), proper use of protective custody, and more effective law enforcement within prisons. The Eight Amendment is there. Use it.
American law already provides means to fight sexual abuse behind bars, from the Eighth Amendment—which the Supreme Court, in Farmer v. Brennan (1994), unanimously found applicable to prisoner rape—to PREA, to the rape and custodial sexual misconduct laws that all fifty states have on their books. Law enforcement authorities should use these legal resources much more effectively than they tend to now: in particular, prosecutors should pursue all substantiated instances of custodial sexual misconduct, sexual assault, or rape in detention.
The key section, however, is this:
When the government takes away a person’s freedom, it is morally obligated to provide the basic necessities he or she can no longer secure independently: food, clothing, and shelter, and also elementary physical protection. DeParle writes, “Since 1980 the murder rate inside prisons has fallen more than 90 percent, which should give pause to those inclined to think that prisons are impossible to reform.” We could similarly reduce the incidence of rape in prison.
And it’s about time that a serious effort was made to do so.