Eddie Rosario on prison rape and ‘the question’

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As the Department of Justice releases new guidelines for enforcement of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, CA staff Eddie Rosario examines how society responds to sexual violence behind bars.

It almost never fails.

Invariably, someone who knows I have been in prison will ask me ‘the question.’ Usually, it takes the form of “How were you able to survive in prison?

The underlying question, however, is about rape. Specifically, people want to know if I was raped.

As institutions that are at their core dehumanizing, prisons actually breed the very behaviors we seek to extinguish.

On our visits to monitor prisons, we consistently find that the most marginalized members of society are also the most vulnerable behind bars. People who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT), youth in adult facilities, those with mental illness, or people incarcerated for the first time tend to be victimized the most often. With little or no institutional protection, victims are left beaten and bloodied, are at risk for contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, and suffer severe and lasting psychological harm.

Prison rape has long been fodder for comedians and is regularly trivialized in movies and TV shows. There’s always the “soap-dropping” joke, exclusive to the abuse that takes place in men’s prisons. This humor makes light of the traumatic experience of rape and reinforces a cultural attitude that prison is the one place where sexual violence is acceptable, or even encouraged.

This “joke” about male rape is accompanied by a deafening silence about the types of abuse that take place in women’s prisons. However, a study published in 2010 by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) found that Bayview Correctional Facility — a medium security women’s prison on the corner of West 20th Street and 11th Avenue, right here in New York City— had the highest rate of alleged staff-on-incarcerated person sexual abuse of all the facilities surveyed nationwide.

Jokes and silence about the abuse of incarcerated people enable the reality of prison rape. And the reality is more horrific than many people know. According to BJS, nearly 10 percent of formerly incarcerated people said they had been sexually victimized during their most recent confinement in a state prison. Considering that many survivors choose not to come forward, this is a conservative estimate.

In adopting national standards to help strengthen the goals of the 2003  Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), the U.S. Department of Justice has taken a step to challenge the systemic abuses and the cultural mindset that allows violence to happen. A clearer focus on prevention, detection, and response to sexual abuse in adult prisons and jails, lockups, community confinement facilities, and juvenile facilities is a much-needed step in the right direction.

New York State prisons are mandated to comply with the PREA standards within the year. Perhaps more important than the standards themselves is the task of implementation. Properly implemented, the PREA standards can potentially create shifts in how we define crime and punishment and force us to question the nature of prisons.

Since its founding nearly 170 years ago, the Correctional Association has actively advocated for the humane treatment of incarcerated people and for greater accountability and transparency of prison systems. I envision the Association’s role as part of a collaborative effort that could serve as a model for independent prison oversight across the country.

Finally, if you are curious about the answer to “the question” – no, I was never raped.

But whether I was raped or not shouldn’t be a measure of who or what I am. I am a man – a human being. Our culture and legal system emphasizes a form of hyper-masculinity that promotes brutality at the expense of relationship-building and coming to terms with ones vulnerability.

Perhaps that the real question is if we as a society will challenge the stereotypes of what it means to be a man, woman or a human being in prison.