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Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Meme-ocracy and Prison Rape: How Our Slogan-Based Politics Destroys Reality-Based Government

As Natasha Lennard noted last month in an excellent Intercept piece, inmates of prisons and jails have not had their "Harvey Weinstein" moment. Only a couple of states have met their obligations under the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (“PREA”), and some governors, like Texas' Abbott, have defiantly forfeited federal revenue rather than spend that federal money on rape prevention. #Metoo outrage just does not extend to raped prison inmates, including raped children, because prisoners never crafted a catchy hashtag or found themselves a charismatic celebrity spokesperson.

Our politics of hashtags and memes does not merely ignore prisoners but actually endangers their safety. The problem is that largely symbolic Culture War debates, when translated into the context of prisons, can have deadly practical consequences. Take, for instance, the Bathroom Wars. States laws that require transgender persons to use bathrooms of their biological sex rather than gender identity are pointless and insulting, but their material consequences are relatively small: It is unlikely that any state will create a bathroom police force to check anyone’s birth sex before entering the loo. When such Culture War symbolism invades prisons, however, it leads to trans-gendered inmates’ being assigned to male housing or “protective” segregation, where they are, at worst, raped and, at best, deprived of the prisons’ educational and exercise programs.

There is a non-trivial chance that the Trump Administration might endanger prisoners in reality for the sake of these vacuous Culture War memes. The ADF, an outfit devoted to defending religious freedom brought a lawsuit alleging that PREA rules protecting trans-gendered inmates from sexual violence constitutes cruel and unusual punishment of female inmates. Everything about the lawsuit reeks of right-wing meme, more worthy of Jerry Springer than a federal courtroom. ADF has no experience in litigating to protect prisoners’ safety. The lead plaintiff is, according to the Dallas News, an “ardent Trump supporter” who filed lawsuits alleging persecution based on her political beliefs and has alleged no specific threat from trans-gendered inmates. In Texas, in fact, trans inmates are the victims, not the perpetrators, of rape. In any case, the PREA rules allow specific worries about about particular inmates’ proclivity to sexual exploitation to be addressed through case-by-case measures. Yet ADF’s attorney reports that the DOJ might try to rescind PREA rules as settlement for this apparently frivolous lawsuit.

The case, in short, looks like a PR effort by a religious defense outfit to secure a symbolic opinion about the “real” sexual identity of trans-gendered prisoners in blithe disregard to the sober realities faced by actual inmates. Show biz is gradually what we have come to expect from the Trump Administration. I am nevertheless hoping that General Sessions, an early supporter of PREA as a Senator, will resist lurid meme-worthy fantasies, however appealing to “the base,” and choose fact-based government over Reality TV politics.

Posted by Rick Hills on January 10, 2018 at 11:31 AM | Permalink


Not only that, but prisoners right to live near a school, vote, and own a gun isn't automatically restored upon release. Over 5,000 people are arrested every year for simply owning a firearm as a felon. I doubt 5,000 prisoners are raped every year.

Posted by: Restoration | Jan 10, 2018 2:57:23 PM

With more than 2.3 million people incarcerated in the U.S., I cannot fathom anyone doubting that 5,000 rapes occur each year. There could very easily be 5,000 rapes each year in the state of Louisiana's prison system alone. We live in a system where prison employees admit to committing up to 60% of the rapes and sexual misconduct which goes on. By just barely scratching the surface of available research and reporting on the inhumane living conditions, you can easily find enough individual cases to bring you up to speed on the situation. Please do the research.

Posted by: New Abolitionist | Jan 13, 2018 11:23:52 AM

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