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Published: Friday, 4/27/2001

The toll of prison rape

Some folks no doubt could not care less that prison inmates are raped by other inmates. But they should, not just because of the obvious crime, but because of the implications upon the release of these individuals, including the increased possibility of infecting sexual partners outside prison with HIV.

Few outside our jails care that the incidence of homosexual rape in penal institutions is so high. Nor are many people bothered that these rape victims are severely abused, that prison guards shrug off complaints, that the victims get little medical attention, or that the rapists are seldom prosecuted.

The Human Rights Watch has published a 378-page report detailing sexual abuse in prison. The organization tries to ensure that the human rights of people worldwide are protected and it informs the public when those rights are abused. The sad stories told by prisoners who are victims of rape are unsettling and frightening.

It's easy to dismiss the issue if one assumes that bad people deserve their fate. Often, however, the victims are not hardened criminals but individuals who are serving time for lesser crimes.

Yet many Americans are either unaware of the dangers of inmate life or callously indifferent to the abuse that occurs there. One must be especially insensitive to be unmoved by a 16-year-old inmate reporting that he broke his arm while fighting off two other inmates who tried to rape him.

Male inmates victimized by rape by HIV-infected prisoners could become infected themselves, and then infect other sexual partners once they are on the outside. The Human Rights Watch report states, “In 1997, an estimated 8,900 prisoners were infected with HIV and another 8,900 had AIDS. AIDS is currently the second-leading cause of death among prison inmates.” Moreover, prison rape victims have a tendency to become suicidal and depressed, and their tendency toward violence increases.

This continuing threat of HIV and AIDS in America's jails is a time bomb that will not be defused by public indifference.

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