Thanks, Ben Carson. You’ve Got Us Talking About Prison Rape

Twelve years after the Prison Rape Elimination Act was signed, implementation remains an issue.
Ben Carson's comments on homosexuality are driving a new conversation about prison sexual violence. (Photo: Earnie Grafton/Reuters)
Mar 5, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Adrienne Samuels Gibbs is a writer specializing in cultural analysis, urban affairs, and the arts. Her work has appeared in Chicago magazine, the Chicago Sun-Times, Ebony, and The Boston Globe, and on NBC.

Ben Carson, celebrated neurosurgeon and a potential Republican presidential candidate, is backtracking on his comments on CNN that suggested a causal relationship between incarceration and homosexuality. He said, “[A] lot of people who go into prison go into prison straight—and when they come out, they’re gay. So, did something happen while they were in there?” Late Wednesday, Carson seemed to apologize on Facebook, writing: “My choice of language does not reflect fully my heart on gay issues.”

Nevertheless, Carson’s comments resonate. They are driving a new and surprising national debate about the persistent problem of sexual assault, including rape, within prisons. That debate may give fresh momentum to legislative efforts to solve the problem. “Rape should not be part of the penalty for being in prison,” says Antonio Ginatta, advocacy director of Human Rights Watch’s U.S. program.

For decades, society and policy makers largely ignored sexual violence in prisons. In 2003, however, Congress passed the bipartisan Prison Rape Elimination Act, the first federal law that explicitly addresses prison sexual assault. The law requires prisons to adopt a zero-tolerance policy for sexual assault and to more rigorously collect information about reported cases.

Mostly because of the law, we now know a lot about the pervasiveness of the problem. The government has collected thousands of reported cases of sexual assault within prisons. It has also found that correctional officers commit nearly half of reported prison sexual assaults. “PREA gives us really tremendous tools,” says Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project. “But implementing a new system always has some problems. It’s going to need refinement.”

There’s still work to do.

Utah, Arizona, and Florida are among the states that have yet to enforce the totality of the law. Some states have essentially argued that the law is too expensive to implement. Last year, then Texas Gov. Rick Perry bluntly told the U.S. Justice Department that his state had successfully implemented its own strategy for thwarting prison sexual assault. “Washington has taken an opportunity to help address a problem in our prisons and jails, but instead created a counterproductive and unnecessarily cumbersome and costly regulatory mess for the states,” Perry wrote.

There are loopholes in the enforcement of PREA—especially in local jails. Ginatta says citizens should hold states accountable. “States could pass much stronger laws that require steps to be taken to end sexual assaults in prisons,” he says, adding, “It’s very difficult for the federal government to tell prisons exactly what to do.”

Carson’s suggestion that people become gay in prison continues to drive conversation. So does the belief that prisoners deserve harsh treatment. Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News, holds up his story as an example that might puncture both ideas. “I was in prison for 17 years, and I was heterosexual when I went into prison,” Wright says, “and I was heterosexual when I came out.” People often forget that rape—within prisons and outside—is entirely preventable. The government, Wright says, is responsible for protecting inmates. Yet, he says, “The government locks them up and holds them defenseless. Having done that, they just can’t turn a blind eye to keeping them safe.”