What sort of people do we want to be?

April 26, 2001|By Jim Sollisch

CLEVELAND -- If you knew of evidence that prisoners in American jails were being routinely tortured, what would you do?

Would you write your elected officials? What if I told you that one study found 22 percent of the prisoners doing time in Nebraska were tortured during their incarceration? And another study of seven prisons in four states puts the number at 21 percent. Would you write Amnesty International? Would you at least be morally outraged?

Before we go any further, let me confess that I've used the word "torture" in place of the word "rape." The statement should be: 22 percent of prisoners have been raped at least once during their incarceration. Are you any less outraged now? Surely rape is a worse abuse than some forms of torture.

Does the issue seem less black and white because the abuse isn't state-sanctioned? According to Joanne Mariner, a lawyer for Human Rights Watch, prison guards and officials know all about rape and choose to ignore it. Nearly half of the states don't even collect statistics on prison rape.

And yet a survey in a Southern state conducted for Human Rights Watch and reported in the New York Times found that inmates estimated that one in three prisoners are forced to have sex; prison guards estimated one in five and supervisors put the number at one in eight.

There are more than 2 million Americans in prison today. So even if you take the smallest estimate and extrapolate, 250,000 prisoners have been raped. And that number shouldn't surprise prison officials since we arrived at it using their own estimates.

If prison officials suspected that guards were stealing food from prisoners and starving them several days a week, would something be done about it? What if officials had reports that the cells had no heat during the winter? Or that prisoners hadn't been allowed to shower in a month? I bet those officials would jump to action, compelled by the Eighth Amendment, which protects criminals from cruel and unusual punishment.

Is there anything crueler than rape? The World Court in The Hague has finally acknowledged the rape of women during war as a crime. America applauded that decision, and yet we close our eyes and ears to the ultimate abuse of our own citizens, an outrage that's in direct violation of our own Bill of Rights.

In the beginning of the 21st century, we like to think that we've gotten too lax on criminals, granting them too many rights. We need to remember that fully 20 percent of the Bill of Rights is about protecting the rights of criminals. They are not a Johnny-come-lately group of victims. Protecting their rights is fundamental to our democracy.

A democracy is judged by how it treats its lowliest and most vulnerable citizens. The Founding Fathers knew this. After all, they were rebelling against a flawed democracy, one that trampled on the rights of dissenters and criminals. Sort of like America in the year 2001.

Jim Sollisch is a free-lance writer who lives in Cleveland.

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