Opinion

Eric Holder cracking down on prison rape

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Joel Gehrke,Eric Holder,Rand Paul,Justice Department,Sexual Harassment,Prison Rape

In 1981, Billy Dillon was a 21-year-old baseball player hoping to get signed into the Detroit Tigers' farm system. His career was derailed when he was wrongfully convicted of murder. Upon incarceration, it took less than an hour after Dillon joined the rest of the inmates for a group of men to rape him.

"Five men charged into his cell," SBNation's Brandon Sneed wrote in August. "Dillon fought, they stabbed him and beat him nearly unconscious - and then they took turns raping him ... The guards never stopped it. 'The guards aren't there to protect you,' Dillon says. 'They're there to keep you from getting out. They're not going to risk their lives for yours.'"

Attorney General Eric Holder's team at the Justice Department wants to change that dynamic; Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason wrote all 50 state governors, warning them that they will lose federal funding if they don't crack down on prison rape.

"Congress requires this," Justice Department spokesman Brian Fallon commented on Twitter, regarding a Huffington Post report on Mason's letter.

Fallon's comment sounds oddly defensive, as if he expects the department to take criticism for trying to protect the unsympathetic millions who have lived in American prisons. In any case, the Justice Department's long-awaited focus on this problem (it took the department nine years to finalize rules pertaining to the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, the Huffington Post's Ryan Reilly noted) deserves praise from conservatives and liberals alike.

"[S]exual abuse is a crime, and should not be the punishment for a crime," Mason wrote in the Feb. 11 warning to state executives.

Obviously, it is. Indeed, it's hard to imagine a more horrifying crime than sexual abuse. The strange thing is that a federal official had to point that out and urge government entities to prevent the rape of prisoners under their charge. Somehow, the phenomenon of prison rape has become an accepted part of American society and culture.

In one of Spike Lee's most underrated films, "25th Hour," "convicted New York drug dealer Montgomery Brogan [played by Edward Norton] reevaluates his life in the 24 remaining hours before facing a seven-year jail term," IMDB writes in the movie synopsis. One of the most moving scenes comes towards the end of those 24 hours, when Brogan asks his best friend to beat him to the point of disfigurement in order to mitigate the threat of prison rape. "I need you to make me ugly," he says.

The moment reflects a terrible truth about American society: Prison rape is understood and accepted in our culture. That scene works, artistically, because Americans assume that prisoners rape each other in jail, a fact that doesn't seem to bother a majority of people enough to make them demand that the relevant government officials put a stop to it.

It's not always inmate-on-inmate violence. Sometimes the guards' corruption is more malignant than just looking the other way. The Justice Department recently concluded an investigation of an Alabama women's prison, for instance, in which inmates were abused by the guards.

The injustice of Dillon's suffering is magnified by the fact that he never should have gone to jail in the first place -- he was innocent, the victim of corrupt law enforcement. Say Dillon was guilty though. "Sexual abuse is a crime, not the punishment for a crime," as even the most determined of law-and-order conservatives should agree. The Constitution protects against cruel and unusual punishment -- even the 18th century jurists who branded horse thieves with the letter "H" didn't consign felons to regular rape.

There's a bipartisan interest arising in allowing ex-felons, rehabilitated prisoners, to vote. Holder and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., discussed the issue Wednesday during a meeting about prison reform. Perhaps those ex-felons, if they are permitted to vote, will give politicians the incentive they need to make the elimination of prison rape a high priority.

In his piece on Billy Dillon, Sneed described prison as the place "as close to hell, demons and all, as can legally exist in America." Conservatives who want a limited government shouldn't tolerate the state behaving like an angry God when it comes to inmates, no matter how evil their crimes.

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