The Senate report into the CIA’s use of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ has revealed many horrors – among them threats of sexual abuse.

We may comfort ourselves that this dark episode in America’s recent history is over, but in other American institutions the horrors continue. Violent sexual assault is not only threatened, but routinely carried out – and not against terrorist suspects in secret facilities, but against ordinary inmates in the country’s regular jails.

It’s a point powerfully made by Michael Brendan Dougherty in an article for The Week:

“There are indeed state-supported institutions where gang rape is used as ritual initiation. There are institutional authorities that meet this culture with indifference or outright support. And we file the poor souls of this system under the heading: deserving victims. We joke in ways that suggest that if these rape victims did not want it, they should never have put on a prison uniform.

“In this manner, rape is treated as a feature of our justice system when it happens to prisoners, rather than what it is: another grave crime.”

Official reports estimate that around 200,000 men, women and juveniles are sexually assaulted in American prisons every year – many of them of repeatedly:

“In prison, men may become the victim of repeated gang rapes. Prisoners can be locked into cells with the men who prey on them. Some live under the constant threat of sexual assault for decades. Their efforts to report their rape are ignored or even punished, both by prison personnel and an inmate culture that destroys ‘snitches.’ The threat of rape is so pervasive it causes some inmates to ‘consent’ to sex with certain prisoners or officers as a way of avoiding rape by others.”

Why is this tolerated?

It doesn’t help that rape against men, especially in prison, is still treated as a joke – the cause of sniggering remarks that would be condemned if they were about women or children.

It’s also a huge challenge to maintain order in such a vast and overcrowded penal system (remember, this is a country with five per cent of the world’s people, but 25 per cent of its prisoners). The chilling suggestion is that “prison officials quietly permit rape as a way to control the population.”

Could it also be the case that the threat of violence – including sexual violence – is still regarded by the public as part of the punishment of prison and a key component of its deterrent effect?

If this is the unspoken assumption, then Michael Brendan Dougherty (who is, by the way, a conservative) has no time for it:

“Acceptance of prison rape is a stinking corruption. No conception of justice can include plunging criminals into an anarchic world of sexual terror. And obviously it thwarts any possibility of a rehabilitative justice that aims to restore criminals to lawful society. Inmates are not improved or better integrated into society through physical and psychological torture.

“Prison rape also vitiates any sense of retributive justice, since rape is not a proper punishment for a crime. Allowing prison rape is just a vindictive horror, and when accepted under the name of punishment makes criminals the victims of justice.”

One thing is certain: If prisoners – many of them highly vulnerable – are being abandoned to the ever-present reality of sexual violence, then ‘torture’ is not too strong a word for it.

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