Prison Rape Reform Makes for Strange Cell-Fellows

Posted on April 4, 2011


Author: Stan Moody

The Maine Department of Corrections has a policy that takes denial to a new art form. It is a zero tolerance for sex. The maximum security Maine State Prison houses roughly 1,000 prisoners, most of whom are young, virile males.

Assuming the policy has less to do with prisoner behavior and more with staff reaction to prisoner behavior, another way of saying it is that there is a policy of zero tolerance for sex in a raging hormone factory.

Three sexual proclivities predominate. The first is that it can be expected that as many as 100 prisoners and 25 guards would be homosexual or bisexual, whereupon violation of the no-sex policy is consensual and routine for some, albeit clandestine.

The second sexual proclivity is traffic in sex. If you are a female staff member, it sadly is assumed by fellow staff members that you are either having sex with another staff member or with a prisoner, whether true or not. You do not have to work at the prison for long before you learn of the creative ways people get what they want in the sex department.

The third proclivity is prison rape, an act of violence for complex reasons that have little to do with sexual urges and everything to do with domination and control.

Rape in Prison:

To address natural sexual proclivities and ease the transition back into society, 12 nations and 6 states in the U.S. permit conjugal visits within various limits. There is no evidence, however, of the restraining effect of such policies on prison rape.

To the contrary, an article in the Columbia Journal of Law and Social Problems strongly suggests that the highly competitive American culture is a key factor in our inordinately high incidences of prison rapes, estimated by the Department of Justice to be around 88,500 a year. Unreported rapes may be 5-10 times higher and tend to increase with longer sentencing.

An April 1, 2011 article in Christianity Today offered a new look at an old problem – what to do about rape in prison. Prison rape has apparently brought together parties that traditionally are at war – National Association of Evangelicals, Prison Fellowship, American Civil Liberties Union, Church of Scientology and George Soros’s Open Society.

In addition, Grover Norquist is getting considerable press attention with the conservative Smart on Crime project.

The Article begins with a traditional Christian perspective on the problem:

Prison reform is a necessary component of the Christian command to protect the defenseless…Critics say recent attempts at reform by the Justice Department do not go far enough to address the problem of sexual abuse in the U.S. correctional system.

New Prison Rape Standards:

Agreed by the various parties is that the Prison Rape Elimination Act that institutes reforms on April 4, 2011, has no enforcement mechanism and is light on criminal penalties. At fault is the shroud of secrecy that encases the prison system, discouraging reporting of rape and encouraging further abuse of victims. Pat Nolan, vice president of Prison Fellowship, points out that in a culture that does not welcome transparency, rules providing no outside enforcement simply continue policies of secrecy and cover-up.

“The prisons have been monitoring themselves; now we see what’s happening,” Nolan was quoted in the article as saying. “We need those outside eyes checking on what they’re doing and holding them accountable for stopping this.” Costs of such safeguards as electronic surveillance fail to factor in moneys spent on settling legal claims as rapes come to light.

A recent claim in Michigan, for example, was settled at $100 million.

“We spend $75 billion on prisons,” Nolan said. “Even by the Attorney General’s inflated estimate, it would be (a fraction) of one percent of that amount (to implement surveillance standards).”

Conservatives Belly Up to the Bar:

Conservative icon, Grover Norquist, joins the likes of Pat Nolan, Newt Gingrich and William Bennett in calling for a broad sweeping change in the entire criminal justice system. They have labeled their efforts the Smart-on-Crime Project. According to journalist Ed Brayton, they call for reforms in forensic science, grand jury, mandatory sentencing and forfeiture and for an increase in spending on DNA testing and on compensation for the wrongly convicted.

Coupled with increased transparency, the interjection of hope, racial equality and fairer sentencing into the criminal justice system may well do much to reduce the incidents of sexual violence.

There is a nagging suspicion, however, about taking seriously the Smart-on-Crime project. Conservatives now advocating for prison reform include the very ones who a generation ago were promoting the tough-on-crime agenda that got us where we are today as by far the world’s biggest incarcerator.

Nevertheless, if Evangelicals, George Soros, the ACLU and the Church of Scientology are finding common ground in how we are treating the least among us, there is perhaps room for hope that other social ills can be addressed outside the tyranny of theocracy.


• Philip Ellenbogen, “Beyond the Border: A Comparative Look at Prison Rape in the United States and Canada.” Columbia Journal of Law and Social Problems (Spr 2009): pp. 359, 360.
• Michelle Person, Bureau of Justice Statistics release, August 26, 2010.
• Alicia Cohn, “Group Criticizes Attorney General’s Proposed Prison Rape Standards.” Christianity Today (Mar 30, 2011).
• Ed Brayton, “Norquist Pushes Criminal Justice Reform.”, Mar 30, 2011.