Jun

24

2011

John Starke|5:30 AM CT

Returning Evil for Evil: The Snickering Consent of Prison Rape

Justice is a fickle word. The way we often use it, you’d think that it’s more malleable than it actually is. We often use it in a way that fits our cause. For our enemies, the word is used more severely. For ourselves, well, we’d like a little Christian grace along with it.

In the case of prison rapes, we—even Christians—often use the word justice corruptly.

In the July issue of Reason, Lovisa Stannow wonders why the government is doing so little to end sexual assault in prison. She reports that the U.S. Department of Justice’s study of the number of inmates who are sexually abused concluded that at least 216,600 inmates were victimized in 2008 alone. Surprisingly, however,

[M]ost of the perpetrators were not other prisoners but staff members—corrections officials whose job it is to keep inmates safe. On average, each victim was abused between three and five times over the course of the year. The vast majority were too fearful of reprisals to seek help or file a formal complaint (emphasis mine).

That’s around 600 assault victims a day with authorities chiefly responsible. Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003, but implementation has been slow, according to Stannow, for reasons that aren’t clear.

I’m not sure about all of Stannow’s conclusions, but I'm not surprised that prison rape is low on the list of social ills we want to eradicate. Take for instance, the fact that prison rape is a common punchline. A Los Angeles Times article by Ezra Klein from March 2008 made the case that since we often joke about prison rape, it’s hard to take the problem seriously. These snickers range from the common “don’t drop the soap” quips to California attorney general Bill Lockyer, who in 2001 jokingly day-dreamed out loud about wanting to escort Enron’s Ken Lay “to an 8-by-10 cell that he could share with a tattooed dude who says, 'Hi, my name is Spike, honey.’”

We might not actually approve prison rape, but as Klein points out, "it doesn't exactly concern us, and occasionally, we take a perverse satisfaction in its existence.”

Perverse, indeed.

As Christians, we should love and fight for justice. Prison rape is a wicked and perverse consequence that we should not delight in, nor joke about. The Bible explains that God gives human government responsibility to distribute justice and punish those who commit evil. We should find no satisfaction in returning evil for evil.

Preying on the Weak

Our snickering supposes that rape happens to the worst of criminals. But the fact is that the victims are often juveniles, women, and the weakest of prisoners. Take for instance the story of Jan Lastocy:

While serving time for attempted embezzlement in a Michigan prison in 1998, Lastocy was raped. Not once, not twice, but several times a week for seven months. The rapist was an officer who supervised her at a prison warehouse.

Chuck Colson and Prison Fellowship, catalysts for the Prison Rape Elimination Act, have been on the front line of this discussion for years. You can read the most recent statements by Prison Fellowship vice president Pat Nolan on the Departments of Justice’s proposed prison rape standards. Colson has said elsewhere:

Prison rape affects more than just prisoners; it punishes people who never set foot inside a prison. For example, AIDS, which is now five-times more prevalent inside prison walls than outside, is a deadly plague that infected inmates will spread once they leave prison. And once released, many inmate-victims visit all the rage and humiliation male rape victims suffer on innocent people--usually women--in a misguided effort to win back a sense of manhood.

Christians delight in perfect justice, not when it is abused. And those who wink at what disgraces humans and dishonors God should repent. May we love our neighbor and enemy by praying that this abuse stops and that those in positions to make changes do so swiftly.

John Starke is an editor for The Gospel Coalition and lead pastor of All Souls Church in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. You can follow him on Twitter.

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