Chandra Bozelko, a former inmate, has an op-ed in the New York Times titled, ‘Why We Let Prison Rape Go On,’ in which she explores why, even 12 year since the Prison Rape Elimination Act was passed, sexual assault in American prisons remains so widespread.
Ultimately, prisons protect rape culture to protect themselves. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about half of prison sexual assault complaints in 2011 were filed against staff. (These reports weren’t all claims of forcible rape; it is considered statutory sexual assault for a guard to have sexual contact with an inmate.)
I was an inmate for six years in Connecticut after being convicted of identity fraud, among other charges. From what I saw, the same small group of guards preyed on inmates again and again, yet never faced discipline. They were protected by prison guard unions, one of the strongest forces in American labor.
Sexualized violence is often used as a tool to subdue inmates whom guards see as upstarts. In May 2008, while in a restricted housing unit, or “the SHU” as it is commonly known, I was sexually assaulted by a guard. The first person I reported the incident to, another guard, ignored it. I finally reached a nurse who reported it to a senior officer.
When the state police arrived, I decided not to talk to them because the harassment I’d received in the intervening hours made me fearful. For the same reason, I refused medical treatment when I was taken to a local emergency room.
Subsequent interviews with officials at the prison amounted to hazing and harassment. They accused me of having been a drug user, which was untrue, and of lying about going to college, though it was true I had. The “investigation,” which I found more traumatic than the assault, dragged on for more than two months until they determined that my allegation couldn’t be substantiated. The law’s guidelines were followed, but in letter not in spirit.
I was also a witness in a case in which an inmate claimed to have been sexually assaulted by a guard and then told me she’d made it up. I reported her — and this time, I was perfectly credible to an investigator, who praised me for having a conscience and a clear head.
The Justice Department estimates that the total bill to society for prison rape and sexual abuse is as high as $51.9 billion per year, including the costs of victims’ compensation and increased recidivism. If states refuse to implement the law when the fiscal benefit is so obvious, something larger is at stake.