Returning Evil for Evil: The Snickering Consent of Prison Rape

Justice is a fickle word. The way we often use it, you’d think that it’s more malleable than it actually is. We often use it in a way that fits our cause. For our enemies, the word is used more severely. For ourselves, well, we’d like a little Christian grace along with it.

In the case of prison rapes, we—even Christians—often use the word justice corruptly.

In the July issue of Reason, Lovisa Stannow wonders why the government is doing so little to end sexual assault in prison. She reports that the U.S. Department of Justice’s study of the number of inmates who are sexually abused concluded that at least 216,600 inmates were victimized in 2008 alone. Surprisingly, however,

[M]ost of the perpetrators were not other prisoners but staff members—corrections officials whose job it is to keep inmates safe. On average, each victim was abused between three and five times over the course of the year. The vast majority were too fearful of reprisals to seek help or file a formal complaint (emphasis mine).

That’s around 600 assault victims a day with authorities chiefly responsible. Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003, but implementation has been slow, according to Stannow, for reasons that aren’t clear.

I’m not sure about all of Stannow’s conclusions, but I’m not surprised that prison rape is low on the list of social ills we want to eradicate. Take for instance, the fact that prison rape is a common punchline. A Los Angeles Times article by Ezra Klein from March 2008 made the case that since we often joke about prison rape, it’s hard to take the problem seriously. These snickers range from the common “don’t drop the soap” quips to California attorney general Bill Lockyer, who in 2001 jokingly day-dreamed out loud about wanting to escort Enron’s Ken Lay “to an 8-by-10 cell that he could share with a tattooed dude who says, ‘Hi, my name is Spike, honey.’”

We might not actually approve prison rape, but as Klein points out, “it doesn’t exactly concern us, and occasionally, we take a perverse satisfaction in its existence.”

Perverse, indeed.

As Christians, we should love and fight for justice. Prison rape is a wicked and perverse consequence that we should not delight in, nor joke about. The Bible explains that God gives human government responsibility to distribute justice and punish those who commit evil. We should find no satisfaction in returning evil for evil.

Preying on the Weak

Our snickering supposes that rape happens to the worst of criminals. But the fact is that the victims are often juveniles, women, and the weakest of prisoners. Take for instance the story of Jan Lastocy:

While serving time for attempted embezzlement in a Michigan prison in 1998, Lastocy was raped. Not once, not twice, but several times a week for seven months. The rapist was an officer who supervised her at a prison warehouse.

Chuck Colson and Prison Fellowship, catalysts for the Prison Rape Elimination Act, have been on the front line of this discussion for years. You can read the most recent statements by Prison Fellowship vice president Pat Nolan on the Departments of Justice’s proposed prison rape standards. Colson has said elsewhere:

Prison rape affects more than just prisoners; it punishes people who never set foot inside a prison. For example, AIDS, which is now five-times more prevalent inside prison walls than outside, is a deadly plague that infected inmates will spread once they leave prison. And once released, many inmate-victims visit all the rage and humiliation male rape victims suffer on innocent people–usually women–in a misguided effort to win back a sense of manhood.

Christians delight in perfect justice, not when it is abused. And those who wink at what disgraces humans and dishonors God should repent. May we love our neighbor and enemy by praying that this abuse stops and that those in positions to make changes do so swiftly.

  • KC

    It seems to me that American prison is comprised of 3 meals a day, free cable and fitness center. That is way better than what many law abiding citizens get on a daily basis. I’m sure that is naive but in a way, I have always thought of rape as the major downside of prison. Past that, it would be a slight upgrade for many Americans….and I don’t include myself in that. Whenever I watch a CSI or something like that, my comment is something to the effect of what you have talked about….so with that, I repent in dust and ashes. You are completely right. My bad!

    • Brad

      I think if you visit a prison it will quickly change whatever image you might have of them.

  • Larry

    Congress passed an act and that didn’t fix it? I’m shocked.

  • Doc B

    As someone once said, “Our prisons contain the worst of the worst. Not only that, but there are convicted criminals in there, too.”

    I’m sure that’s too broad a brush, but it apparently contains a kernel of truth based on the articles cited above.

    Maybe Jesus knew something when he commanded us to visit those in prison.

  • Steve Cornell

    Our prisons stand as a largely unnoticed crisis gradually threatening social and economic stability in our nation. With more citizens incarcerated than any other nation, overcrowded prisons in America are straining State budgets and simply unable to be places of reform. One out of every 100 Americans lives behind bars.

    “Incarceration rates are even higher for some groups. One in 36 Hispanic adults is behind bars, based on Justice Department figures for 2006. One in 15 black adults is, too, as is one in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34. The report, from the Pew Center on the States, also found that only one in 355 white women between the ages of 35 and 39 are behind bars but that one in 100 black women are” (

    Many people view prison as a place to put people for protecting society from them. Yet, as recidivism rates show, protection of public safety requires more than simply putting criminals out of sight for a period of time.

    Each year, at least 700,000 prisoners are released and returned to our communities. “More than five million people are under community supervision — either probation or parole — on any given day in the United States,” noted The Pew Charitable Trusts in 2008.

    “Success rates among these offenders are not high: more than 40 percent of probationers and more than half of parolees do not complete their supervision terms successfully. In fact, parole violators account for almost 35 percent of admissions to state prisons, and nearly half of local jail inmates were on probation or parole when they were arrested.”

    Supported by taxpayers, prison systems are being watched closely. On average, it costs about $20,000 per year to house and keep each prisoner. California and other states facing serious budget problems have pushed for big cuts to their departments of correction. Yet, as Californians know, it’s not enough to cut budgets when the recidivism rate is about 70 percent. The problem is exacerbated by lack of rehabilitation and social service programs.

    To read about a hopeful example from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, see:

  • http://thetribulationtimesherald-exhorter.blogspot LD

    Troubling, but I’ll wager that when most men contemplate prison in any way this is one of the first things to come to mind. Bravo to Colson for being a vocal part of identifying this issue.

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  • Bob

    Having served time many years ago, I can assure you that sexual assault is a huge problem in the prison system. It is difficult to even talk about the things I witnessed since people tend to either approve in some strange sense of self-justification, or they ignore it as if it does not exist. Most of the assaults that I saw on guards tended to be grabbing or exposure, and I never witnessed a female staff sexually physically assaulted. Inmates, however, were raped on a regular basis. It became a sport within the system, and the guards used it against inmates as a threat…sometime carried out via their approval. This, of course, has always been the case in prisons, but it heightened in the modern system.

    BTW, the idea that prison is great, 3 meals a day, health care, TV and all, is a complete myth. These shallow things cannot compare to the daily threats, the daily tension, the daily fights, the daily stabbings, the daily chaos that is prison. I would take not having these things any day to be away from the thick violent and disturbing atmosphere.

    Here is a question on something I witnessed many, many, many times: what about sex-offenders who are beat and raped regularly? Sex offenders can count on being attacked and possibly raped more than anyone else, and the system approves of this. No one wants to defend such criminals, however, which is understandable. But then there is Christ…..a difficult issue constantly swept under the rug.

  • Vico

    Remember Christians in prison suffering for the Gospel.
    Hebrews 13:3
    Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.

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