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Taking Prison Rape Seriously

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

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

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

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

Question:\r\n Are public attitudes about imprisonment changing?

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

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

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

Recorded\r\n April 14, 2010

Sexual victimization in prison now has come to constitute a significant portion of that in society as a whole.

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