Stronger efforts needed against prison rape

For as long as the history of prisons in America, there has been rape in prisons in America. There, too, have been children locked in prison cells with adults. Young men — boys, really — turned into tools for the sexual satisfaction of the older, the stronger. We turn away from it in part because our penitentiaries are the last remnants of Darwinian survival of the fittest, played out on a day-to-day basis. And it is difficult to feel compassion for criminals. This is why prison movies like "Blood in Blood Out," "American Me" and "Shawshank Redemption" feature graphic rapes and yet did not lead to any public outcries about prison conditions. This is why, despite Nathan McCall's "Makes Me Wanna Holla" making numerous best seller lists and featuring a graphic scene where several men raped a man christened Tootie, no outcry against prison rape followed.

I walked into a prison cell at 16 years, and my 126 pounds taught me to breathe with fear. To learn to shape fear into the rage and distrust I'd need to make it to my release date whole. The problem is that fear makes you less whole. Distrust almost guaranteed that I'd have a hard time finding role models to guide me. And while my nightmares have little to do with what I experienced in prison, they have everything to do with the hardness that concrete and count times instilled in me.

I'm not supposed to say that prison made me hard; I'm not supposed to admit days and nights I turned a blind eye to the suffering of others because I intended to be safe, not a hero. But I watched men take advantage of young boys not old enough to vote, and I watched men take advantage of each other. We don't talk about what it means to become a man amidst debilitating violence, in part because we don't imagine recovering the children that have been thrown to the wolves.

The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) deserves a better advocate. Someone who can speak of what it means to be forced to fashion a makeshift halter top out of a white T-shirt. Someone who knows what it means to cut their prison jeans into tight shorts that barely cover their buttocks, or who woke up one morning with every follicle of hair shaved off. PREA needs the 16-year-old who was assigned the wrong cell, who walked into a room with a man hardened by steel and all that a life sentence makes you forget, as a spokesperson.

I'm not that person, and I only know their stories through rumor and innuendo. Those people are silent, or are so ruthless that they are a part of the horror stories of others now. I only speak now because there is safety in freedom; I don't have to concern myself with pointing a finger at a man who might come back at me with a knife. I can point a finger at the entire system, knowing every statistic available supports my truth.

Every prison story begins with fear. Maybe PREA, at best, is trying to tackle that fear. It doesn't go far enough. The U.S. Department of Justice has to make a decision about whether the most vulnerable young people in our nation warrant safety from rape.

From the lack of a public outcry against juveniles being sentenced as and housed with adults, it's easy to assume that, at best, the public feels the threat of rape is part of the ticket a young person buys with crime. Juveniles charged as adults are still housed with adults during pretrial detention. Some of these juveniles have been raped while awaiting trial.

I'm not sure that there should be some magic number of men who come forward before a tangible response to this violence is made. These young folks find themselves in a fierce Catch-22: Either they risk the violence of interaction or the mental instability that often comes with isolation. Nothing is accomplished by exposing anyone to such a threat, and less is accomplished by ignoring the rapes and deaths that already plague the history of juveniles in adult jails and prisons.

A key component of PREA is the development of national standards to address prison rape. After a long delay, the DOJ finally released its proposed standards for public comment early this year — but without a standard specifically geared at protecting youths in adult jails and prisons. The response period has since closed.

As the department reviews the comments and nears completion on the final standards, I hope it will consider a simple solution: Ban the placement of youths in adult facilities.

Reginald Dwayne Betts lives in Prince George's County and is the author of "A Question of Freedom." His email is

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