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Question: Why are people beginning to take the issue of prison rape more seriously?

Robert Perkinson: Well, there’s so many people in prison that sexual victimization in prison now has come to constitute a significant portion of the sexual victimizations in the society as a whole.  Human Rights Watch and some of the human rights organizations have really began in the late ‘90’s documenting the incredibly high rates of sexual assault.  Which was not new.  If you go back and look at the very economical cost-effective regimented system that Texas was able to perfect over the course of the 20th century, based on convict guards.  A lot of the ways those guards were in a sense compensated was by officers turning a blind eye to their sexual victimization of "punks," so-called "punks" in prison.  So, sexual assault has been endemic and often a tool of... a tool of subjugation in prisons for a long time, but it has gotten a lot more attention.  

And under the Bush Administration—to the Bush Administration’s credit—they signed legislation to kind of conduct a lot more research into sexual victimization and so we’re getting a lot better data on that now, and I think because the data is now available, some corrections officers are starting to take it more seriously and therefore when victims, or would-be victims, are in a compromising situation we are beginning to have a system in which they feel like they can go to the authorities and seek protection and receive redress.  But we are, frankly, a long way from that.  

And there is, of course, a public health component to this as well to both coerced sex and consensual sex in prison, and that is that another way that mass imprisonment is adversely affecting the public is that they have become incubators of public health problems.  They’ve become incubators of hepatitis B; they’ve become incubators of HIV and antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis.  And of course all of that has consequences beyond prison walls.  It’s yet another reason to try to use incarceration as a penalty of last resort than a penalty of first resort, as we have started doing in recent years.

Question: Are public attitudes about imprisonment changing?

Robert Perkinson: I don’t know if we have seen a change in the public mindset yet.  We have seen a leveling off of the prison population in the last few years.  We have seen a lot of states start to mitigate some of the harsh steps they’ve taken over the past two generations.  Texas has rolled back partially the Rockefeller Drug Laws, California, facing bankruptcy, is struggling to release 40,000 inmates in order to comply with Federal Court Orders.  A lot of states are trying to figure out how to save money, because of the budget crisis, by downsizing these resource-devouring bureaucracies that they’ve built.  But I don’t know if we have yet see a shift in public attitudes.  That will probably take... in come ways there’s evidence that the harsh public attitudes have been driven in some ways by television and by politicians.  If you look at a sociologist in Washington, Katherine Beckett, went back and looked at opinion surveys, you know, how seriously the public thought drug addiction, how serious of a problem that was compared to other problems.  And she found that, for instance before Bush the first brandished his bag of crack that had been purchased in Lafayette Park and made the war on drugs an essential part of his presidency.  Before that, political leadership for partisan purposes took place and commanded public attention, the public was not particularly concerned about illegal drug use.  And afterward they developed harsher attitudes and more anxiety.  So we’re going to have to see some leadership in the other direction, I think, for people to start developing other ideas.  

One thing I should say about that too is that the public, quite understandably, has very fickle attitudes and conflicted attitudes toward crime and punishment as all of us do.  And so polls are in some ways driven by how you ask the question.  So if you ask people, do we go too... "Should we be harder on criminals than we are?"  Many poll recipients, especially white men it should be said, will say yes, we need to be harder on crime.  But if you ask them, the public, "Should we emphasize treatment over incarceration for non-violent drug crimes?" they also say yes.  Or "Should we have more treatment in prison?" or "Should we have more education in prison?"  So, you know, framing has a lot to do with how successfully we are able to pursue changes.  

the problem we have had in recent years is that the Democrats from the end of the Johnson Administration forward have been running scared on criminal justice.  They felt that the accusation of being soft on crime is one of their critical vulnerabilities.  And so President Clinton more masterfully than his predecessors decided that he was going to be a draconian as any of his opponents and he signed the largest, harshest crime bills in American history during his watch.  And he did successfully fortify his right flank on criminal justice, but with absolutely disastrous effects.  And so far, the Obama Administration has not taken that approach... of course they have had a congressional majority so they haven’t had as much pressure to do so. And we will see whether they are able to have the kind of fortitude and attention and able to marshal the political capital to kind of move through some serious changes as there is some evidence that they do want to do.

Recorded April 14, 2010

Taking Prison Rape Seriously

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