To End Rape Culture, Fight Mass Incarceration

Content Warning: This piece includes racial slurs and language and content about sexual assault that some readers may find triggering or upsetting.

In 2010, the Center for Public Integrity published its groundbreaking investigative reporting series on college sexual assault, jumpstarting a movement that has reached every corner of the country, including the White House.

At the center of the movement is a critique of rape culture, broadly defined as an environment in which rape and other instances of gender-based sexual violence are normalized or perceived as part of everyday life. Rape culture is also perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language and the objectification of women’s bodies. In such a culture, survivors are berated and perpetrators walk free. 

The Hunting Ground, a scathing documentary on sexual assault at big-name universities, portrays rape culture as part and parcel of Collegetown, U.S.A. It is the temporary pinnacle of a movement that shows no signs of slowing down.

But college campuses aren’t alone in their struggles against widespread sexual assault. Quite simply, there is nothing that exemplifies American rape culture more so than the epidemic of prison rape.

Meet John Doe, a 17-year-old young black man who was held up in an adult correctional facility in Ionia (aka “I Own Ya”), Michigan. After a few days into his three-year sentence, John started receiving letters from other inmates. One read as follows:

“You are one sexy nigger. You need a white man to show you how to act. I want you and fantasize about you. When the opportunity comes I want to sneak in your house and hit that.”

John was later anally raped by his cellmate. He was then sold for sex multiple times. Almost a year after getting out, he still has nightmares.

These stories are endless.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 55 out of 1,000 inmates report being sexually abused, meaning that “a prisoner’s likelihood of becoming a victim of sexual assault is 30 times higher than that of any given woman on the outside.” In 2011 alone, roughly 200,000 inmates were sexually abused by prison staff or fellow inmates.

The pain isn’t evenly distributed: Inmates who are minors in juvenile detention, members of the LGBT community and/or mentally ill are at a much higher risk for sexual abuse than the general population.

To no one’s surprise, the government isn’t doing much. The Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 has done little more than provide useful statistics, and Congress hasn’t appropriated enough funds to substantially prevent prison rape from happening.

And who can blame them? Of course it’s going to be expensive when you’re dealing with 2.4 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 2,259 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,283 local jails and 79 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers and prisons in the U.S. territories

Indeed, mass incarceration—in all of its racist glory—lies at the heart of the prison rape crisis. For decades, the American justice system has caged human beings in toxic conditions with the excuse that such excruciating pain leads to some form of rehabilitation. But what do you expect to happen when, for example, a prison meant to house 400 inmates is now home to 900?

I wish this mattered to most of you, but I know that it's typically not an issue on your radar. From Internet memes to everyday punchlines, prison rape is treated as a joke. Besides, many students at the Claremont Colleges were afforded the luxury of not knowing anyone who went to prison. And it’s not because you weren’t around any crime; it’s just that the cops weren’t after you.

As the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik puts it: “For a great many poor people in America, particularly poor black men, prison is a destination that braids through an ordinary life, much as high school and college do for rich white ones.”

But most of us don’t know someone who’s been sexually assaulted, either. And yet hundreds—even thousands—of 5C students take up arms against collegiate sexual assault. The same can be done about prison rape. Both of these issues are anything but mutually exclusive. They are tied at the hip by American rape culture. Only through solidarity can we fight both, and only through fighting both can we hope to eradicate either one.

I’m not asking for a solution to the problem, I’m just asking for some recognition. If Michelle Alexander, mass incarceration’s most prominent detractor, can commit to “taking off the blinders” and “connecting the dots,” so can we.

Carlos Ballesteros CM ’16 is a history and sociology double major from Chicago.