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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Column: Rape is rape, even if it happens in prisons

When neurosurgeon and presidential-hopeful Ben Carson caused a big flap a few weeks ago with his comments about prison turning people gay, this page made no comment — in part because Carson is not going to be the Republicans’ nominee for president, and in part because almost nobody seriously agrees with Carson’s ideas about gay people. He’s a lone voice in the wilderness, shouting things like “a lot of people […] go into prison straight — and when they come out, they’re gay” into the wind. Who cares?

But Carson’s comments do draw attention to other, more insidious and widespread ideas about the rape that is endemic in American prisons: the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that in 2011 and 2012, four percent of people in prison and almost 10 percent of those in juvenile detention were raped. Half of those assaults were perpetrated not by other prisoners, but by prison staff.

Immediately after Carson asserts that men who go into prison straight return to the outside world as raging homosexuals, he asks, “So, did something happen while they were in there? Ask yourself that question.”

People aren’t more likely to identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender after a prison sentence than before. There’s not a single scientific study that can back Carson up. But that insinuating question at the end suggests that he wasn’t talking about people turning gay after their release from prison at all — he was talking about them being raped by other men while inside.

Carson is part of a larger trend in politics, mostly on the right, that tries to equate prison rape with consensual gay sex, spin it as a form of justice for sex offenders, turn it into a joke or otherwise explain it away.

Mike Huckabee, also a presumptive Republican candidate for president in 2016, wrote a chapter in his wildly successful “I’m running for president” book, “God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy,” titled, “Bend Over and Take It Like a Prisoner!” Get it? Because the federal government taxing its citizens is similar to a rapist assaulting another prisoner while the victim is in government custody. Isn’t that funny?

And in popular media, too, like “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” an ostensibly progressive show that advocates on behalf of sexual assault victims, suspects are frequently threatened with the prospect of being raped behind bars. These are terrible people, yes — rapists and child abusers themselves. But unlike what Brother Dean would have us believe, even terrible people don’t deserve rape. A justice system that operates on the principle “an eye for an eye” is not a justice system at all.

At a time when sexual assault advocacy is gaining attention and traction among the public and policymakers alike — first within the military, now on our nation’s college and university campuses — we need to be talking about the fact that nobody deserves to be raped, especially not people who are wholly dependent on the government for their wellbeing. 

In a partial acknowledgment of the scope of the problem and the government’s inherent responsibility to protect its prisoners during their time in prison, Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act, or PREA, in 2003, which laid out basic steps prisons could take to protect their most vulnerable populations and improve the reporting and response steps taken after an assault. States were given until 2014 to comply. Arizona is one of seven states that simply refused.

As the executive director of Middle Ground Prison Reform in Tempe, Donna Leone Hamm said last year when it became apparent that Arizona was going to miss the deadline, “There are very few Arizona legislators that authentically care about inmate safety.” That needs to change.

And even those of us who can’t find it in our hearts to “care about inmate safety” can at least care about what willful noncompliance is costing the state — at least five percent of our federal prison funds are being withheld until the state adopts PREA, at a time when higher education funding is being slashed to pay for state prisons.

So while Ben Carson is just a far-right troll, the ideas behind his ranting are still dangerous. If the past few years of seeing sexual-assault advocacy in the news have taught us anything, it ought to be this: No victim is a perfect victim, but rape is still rape. And rape is always wrong.

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Jacquelyn Oesterblad is opinions editor. Follow her on Twitter.

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