Matt Taibbi and Prison Rape

Matt Taibbi’s recent Rolling Stone article about Wall Street bankers contains a now-notorious quote from a congressional aide; the aide suggests that if a few Wall Street bankers were sentenced to “pound-in-the-ass” prisons, Wall Street would clean up its act pretty fast. Taibbi lets the remark about “pound-in-the-ass” prisons pass without comment. Why? Why have civilized, educated Americans accepted the fact that when a man is sentenced to prison in this country, he should expect to be raped?

Most Americans gasped when the Abu Ghraib photos came out. Yet with no discernible public outrage we consign men to institutions where horrific punishment is routinely meted out – not officially, but with the apparent acquiescence of government agencies.

Snide asides about prison rape, such as the one in the Taibbi article, endorse the government’s laxness. Maybe we don’t sanction torture in prison – but we warn potential inmates that they will be tortured if they go to prison.

There was a time in this country when lynching was treated with the same official hypocrisy that prison rape gets today. Both lynching in its time and prison rape in ours serve the same function: they intimidate and coerce in ways that our Constitution would never allow. And both affect a population that is overwhelmingly minority and poor.

An approximate understanding of why we tolerate prison brutality can be gained by looking at the way in which economic, political and social factors have coalesced to define the character of our penal system.

The U. S. incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. One reason for this is money – prison is increasingly a profit-making enterprise. Another reason is the growing disconnect between those that sentence – upper class and white – and those who are sentenced.

A graphic example of the prison-for-profit dynamic can be found in Pennsylvania. There, a juvenile court judge was recently convicted of racketeering. Although the court that convicted this man did not weigh in on the link between his sentencing history and his racketeering activities, the Pennsylvania judiciary did vacate thousands of the judge’s decisions; it was determined that when on the bench, not only did he fail to protect the rights of juveniles, but he also directed those juveniles to serve their sentences in detention centers in which he had a financial stake.

While such egregious examples of judicial compromise may be rare, more subtle associations between our penal system and profit exist: for example, in order to trim correctional expenditures, New York slated several prisons for closure. However, this measure was put on hold because of the impact the move would have on local economies.

Also compromising the prison closures was the issue of congressional representation; prison inmates are considered residents in the district where they are imprisoned. If prisons close, and census numbers dwindle, then some districts could lose their congressional seats.

The trail of prison dollars leads not only to judicial misconduct and congressional representation – it also brings us to the door of lobbyists. Two of the largest prison-for-profit enterprises in the United States, CCA and GEO, work the political system to improve their bottom line. Both companies are heavy contributors to a D.C. – based organization, The American Legislative Council, which advocates for the privatization and toughening of law enforcement activities.

The U.S.’s high incarceration rate takes a toll not only on the public purse but also on our social fabric. A 2003 article in The Guardian, extrapolating from DOJ figures, estimates that a black male, born in the US in 2001, has a one in three chance of going to prison some time in his life.

Things might be different if white, upper class Americans believed they ran a significant risk of doing time in one of our “pound-in-the-ass” facilities; maybe there would be less joking about ass-pounding. But, given the growing economic and social disparity in our country, that’s not likely to happen. So it’s up to everybody else, Matt Taibbi included, to change the situation. It’s time we all felt repelled by references to sexual assault – whether in prison or out.

We have largely relegated lynching as a social phenomenon to the dustbin of history. Let us do the same for prison rape.

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