The current issue of The New York Review of Books includes a letter on rape in prisons by David Kaiser, a member of the board of an organization called Stop Prisoner Rape. Kaiser's short letter notes: (1) how widespread prison rape is (about ten percent of male prisoners are raped, mostly by other prisoners, while an even higher percentage of female prisoners are sexually abused, mostly by guards); (2) how prison rape can be dramatically reduced by effective oversight and reductions in overcrowding; and (3) the dramatic cost that prison rape exacts in terms of physical and psychic harm to victims, as well as the public health cost from the spread of HIV.
I share Kaiser's view that prison rape is a national scandal but would add that a large part of the problem is our culture. Despite having the highest incarceration rate of any constitutional democracy, prisons and prisoners are generally invisible in American public life. When prison rape is discussed, it is generally thought to be a fit topic for humor or a perverse view about justice--as though contracting HIV via rape is an appropriate punishment for selling marijuana or insider trading. At best, prison rape today is evaluated in the way that ordinary rape of women by men was understood forty years ago, when (with the exception of black-on-white rape, which was treated extremely seriously for reasons having more to do with white male racism than concern for female victims), rape was also a fit subject for sexual humor. (Search for the word "rape" and then read a few lines of dialogue from this transcription of the 1972 Woody Allen film "Take the Money and Run" for a fairly standard example.)
Rape outside of prison, including acquaintance rape, only began to be taken seriously when feminists raised consciousness about the harm rape does, and that task is still not complete. Groups like Stop Prisoner Rape aim to do the same for victims of prison rape. Of course, (as even a fairly conservative Supreme Court acknowledged in 1994), nobody, not even a convicted murderer or rapist, should be raped as a form of punishment, but as a tactical matter for winning hearts and minds, it may be necessary for SPR to focus first on the rape of inmates who are entirely innocent or guilty only of non-violent offenses.