Just ask Cal Skinner, the former Illinois legislator who pushed for prison reforms. His opponent in the 2000 primary election accused him of being more interested in convicts than in constituents, and he was defeated. Skinner says his greatest frustration, however, was his inability to push through effective laws aimed at stopping prison rape in Illinois. That result is mirrored in other states where legislation also generally fails, he says. "There's no lobbyist crusading against prison rape. For a lawmaker, it's a mission without political reward."
Sacramento is silent on the issue. An official with the California Senate's Public Safety Committee, who asked not to be identified, says that he can't recall any bills introduced on the subject.
Congress is considering action against rape in the form of "The Prison Rape Reduction Act," which has strong bipartisan support. Whether President Bush signs it into law or not is still an open question. The bill, which applies to both state and federal prisons, requires the Justice Department to create a clearinghouse for statistics on prison rape nationwide, ties federal funding for prisons to levels of rape occurrences, provides a hotline for victims and creates a training program for corrections officials. It's not exactly a Magna Carta on the subject, but, as Schiraldi says, "It's a start."
When prison rapes occur, responsibility for prosecuting perpetrators falls on local district attorneys. The problem is, Schiraldi says, that D.A.s are often loath to file charges because those prosecutions could be seen as coming to the defense of criminals. And in most jurisdictions, spending local tax money to protect criminals, even if they're victims, becomes a politically risky act.
Consequently, the main hope for convicts who believe they have been wronged has always been the courts. However, because inmates often have to serve as their own attorneys, the barriers are high, James Robertson says. For an inmate to prove a violation of the 8th Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment, for example, he must show that the prison staff practiced deliberate indifference, which is exceedingly difficult. Historically, inmates file lawsuits in federal courts because they distrust state courts. However, the federal Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996 makes it much more difficult to prevail in federal court, often leaving inmates feeling as if they have no place to go for legal protection.
Forcing prisoners to seek shelter from "cruel and unusual punishment" at the hands of other prisoners is itself an indictment of the American justice system, Vincent Schiraldi says. Or, as the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky said more pointedly in "The House of the Dead," a novel based upon the four years he served for sedition in Russia's abysmal 19th century prisons: The degree to which a society is civilized can be judged by entering its prisons.