Is it true that living in America has become riskier? In 2006, the political scientist Jacob Hacker published The Great Risk Shift, a progressive tract that appropriated the vocabulary of wealth management to show how thirty years of privatization and deregulation had abraded the security of the American family. Risks once borne by corporations and the government, Hacker noted, like unplanned health costs, are now the responsibility of Mom and Pop. Transferring risk from the collective to the individual, though, ends badly for everyone. Family affliction, like banker “contagion,” is tricky to sequester: if Larry and Terry get bankrupted by bad luck, their misfortune cascades, dragging down creditors, neighbors, and especially their children. The reason liberals like insurance is that it helps diffuse risk throughout society. Pooling risk, one might say, is the essence of the progressive social contract.
Hacker focuses on hazards like cancer and credit exposure, but these are not the only perils we face. Every time we leave the house—and more often, actually, if we remain within it—we run the risk of getting stabbed, shot, raped, or robbed. But while financial risks have crested in recent decades, the risk of suffering personal violence has receded. According to government statistics, Americans are safer today than at any time in the last forty years. In 1990, there were 2,245 homicides in New York City. In 2010, there were 536, only 123 of which involved people who didn’t already know each other. The fear, once common, that walking around city parks late at night could get you mugged or murdered has been relegated to grandmothers; random murders, with few exceptions, simply don’t happen anymore.
When it comes to rape, the numbers look even better: from 1980 to 2005, the estimated number of sexual assaults in the US fell by 85 percent. Scholars attribute this stunning collapse to various factors, including advances in gender equality, the abortion of unwanted children, and the spread of internet pornography.
It shouldn’t surprise us that the country was more dangerous in 1990, at the height of the crack epidemic, than in 2006, at the height of the real estate bubble. What’s strange is that crime has continued to fall during the recession. On May 23, in what has become an annual ritual, the New York Times celebrated the latest such finding: in 2010, as America’s army of unemployed grew to 14 million, violent crime fell for the fourth year in a row, sinking to a level not seen since the early ’70s. This seemed odd. Crime and unemployment were supposed to rise in tandem—progressives have been harping on this point for centuries. Where had all the criminals gone?
Statistics are notoriously slippery, but the figures that suggest that violence has been disappearing in the United States contain a blind spot so large that to cite them uncritically, as the major papers do, is to collude in an epic con. Uncounted in the official tallies are the hundreds of thousands of crimes that take place in the country’s prison system, a vast and growing residential network whose forsaken tenants increasingly bear the brunt of America’s propensity for anger and violence.
Crime has not fallen in the United States—it’s been shifted. Just as Wall Street connived with regulators to transfer financial risk from spendthrift banks to careless home buyers, so have federal, state, and local legislatures succeeded in rerouting criminal risk away from urban centers and concentrating it in a proliferating web of hyperhells. The statistics touting the country’s crime-reduction miracle, when juxtaposed with those documenting the quantity of rape and assault that takes place each year within the correctional system, are exposed as not merely a lie, or even a damn lie—but as the single most shameful lie in American life.
From 1980 to 2007, the number of prisoners held in the United States quadrupled to 2.3 million, with an additional 5 million on probation or parole. What Ayn Rand once called the “freest, noblest country in the history of the world” is now the most incarcerated, and the second-most incarcerated country in history, just barely edged out by Stalin’s Soviet Union. We’re used to hearing about the widening chasm between the haves and have-nots; we’re less accustomed to contemplating a more fundamental gap: the abyss that separates the fortunate majority, who control their own bodies, from the luckless minority, whose bodies are controlled, and defiled, by the state.
Before last year, the federal government had never bothered to estimate the actual number of rapes that occur in prisons. Its data relied on official complaints filed by prisoners, which in recent years have averaged around 800. One such complaint was filed in 1995 by Rodney Hulin, a boy from Amarillo, Texas, who had been arrested as a 15-year-old after throwing a Molotov cocktail into a pile of garbage. The trash burned, causing about $500 worth of damage to the exterior of an adjacent house. Hulin’s prank was unimpressive, but Texas in the mid-’90s had little tolerance for teenage ruffianism; in 1994, George W. Bush had become governor, defeating Ann Richards, a popular incumbent, by depicting her as soft on crime. Hulin was charged with two counts of second-degree arson. He was a small guy—just five feet tall and 125 pounds—but he got a big sentence: eight years in adult prison.
Within a month of arriving at Clemens Unit, a temporary holding facility outside Houston for juveniles on their way to adult prison, Hulin was raped by another inmate. He asked to be moved out of harm’s way, but his request was denied, and the rapes continued. In a letter to prison authorities, he wrote, “I might die at any minute. Please sir, help me.” Help was not forthcoming: getting raped was not deemed urgent enough to meet the requirements of the prison’s emergency grievance criteria. When Hulin got his mother to complain to the prison’s warden, she was told that Hulin needed to “grow up” and “learn to deal with it.”
Hulin’s method for dealing with it was to kill himself. Ten weeks after his arrival, he was discovered dangling from the ceiling of his cell.
Hulin’s case was unusual: most prisoners who get raped do not write letters to the warden. It isn’t hard to see why: resisting an inmate who claims your body as his own, or, worse, acquiring a reputation as a “snitch,” can turn an isolated incident into months of serial gang rape. Just ask Roderick Johnson, a petty thief who was attacked by his roommate shortly after arriving at a Texas prison. Johnson asked to be transferred to a different section of the facility, and got his wish. But news of Johnson’s physical availability had spread throughout the complex—after you’re raped once, you’re marked—and he was soon enslaved by a gang. In addition to passing Johnson around among themselves, Johnson’s new overseers sold his ass and mouth to a variety of clients for $3 to $7, a competitive enough price that it resulted in multiple rapes every day for the eighteen months that Johnson spent in prison. When he went to the authorities, they laughed and told him to “fight or fuck.”
Bringing criminal charges against prison officials for failing to protect inmates is virtually impossible in the United States, but civil actions can be filed. After Johnson got out, he lodged a civil suit against six guards who he said refused to help him. In 2005, a Wichita Falls jury found in favor of the guards. In 2007, after passing a note to a clerk at a gas station that read, “I have 9 mm. Put the money in the bag,” Johnson was arrested again. This time, since Johnson was a repeat offender, he got nineteen years.
Victims in juvenile facilities, or facilities for women, have an even tougher time: usually it’s the guards, rather than the inmates, who coerce them into sex. The guards tell their victims that no one will believe them, and that complaining will only make things worse. This is sound advice: even on the rare occasions when juvenile complaints are taken seriously and allegations are substantiated, only half of confirmed abusers are referred for prosecution, only a quarter are arrested, and only 3 percent end up getting charged with a crime.
In January, prodded in part by outrage over a series of articles in the New York Review of Books, the Justice Department finally released an estimate of the prevalence of sexual abuse in penitentiaries. The reliance on filed complaints appeared to understate the problem. For 2008, for example, the government had previously tallied 935 confirmed instances of sexual abuse. After asking around, and performing some calculations, the Justice Department came up with a new number: 216,000. That’s 216,000 victims, not instances. These victims are often assaulted multiple times over the course of the year. The Justice Department now seems to be saying that prison rape accounted for the majority of all rapes committed in the US in 2008, likely making the United States the first country in the history of the world to count more rapes for men than for women. (...)
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