Monday, October 24, 2005

The curious matter of prison rapes

Six officials of Texas's prison system were acquitted a few days ago of violating the civil rights of a Texas prisoner, Roderick Johnson, who claims he was raped multiple times, reported it multiple times, and was told by prison officials simply to stand up and fight like a man if he didn't want to get raped. The prisoner is gay, which no doubt worked to the detriment of his claim.

But that's not the whole story. There is a strong sentiment in Texas, and I believe in the rest of the country, that criminals have it coming. The novel legal principle, "break the law, get raped," is one expression of the underlying vengefulness at the heart of our criminal justice system, a kind of schadenfreude at the core of our idea of how to deal with crime.

Sadly, this cuts across political boundaries. I have read, and heard, a number of expressions of satisfaction from my fellow liberals at the idea of Tom Delay being traded around in the Texas prison system like cigarettes.

The Texas prisoner who lost his case reported being raped 48 times, and claimed he was bought and sold by Texas prison gangs. The civil rights trial was held in Wichita Falls, whose population is perhaps as pure a distillate of nasty spitefulness towards homosexuality as could be found in Texas, or perhaps anywhere outside of the tribal areas of Afghanistan, and the verdict was pretty much a foregone conclusion if only for that reason. Let us hope the jury would not have held that a heterosexual woman would deserve to get raped 48 times because she was heterosexual. (Perhaps they would, of course, if they thought she was asking for it in some way. But that's another issue.)

But if Mr. Johnson had not been gay, I think he would have stood a good chance of losing his case, simply because, in the eyes of many Americans, having broken the law is itself "asking for it," and a little extra piling on, so to speak, is A-OK with them.

I don't think I can prove this, but if someone as unintuitive as George Bush can go with his gut, certainly I can do the same, and with far less catastrophic results. I think there is a connection, a commonalty, between such different events as Abu Ghraib and prison rape and police on the street tasering people just to teach them a lesson, and public satisfaction at criminals getting what they "deserve." The connection, I think, is a psychological common thread of reactive rage.

This may be the remnant of our founding puritanism, which has over time curdled, like sour milk, especially in the overheated climate of southern religiosity, but is found somewhere deep in the American soul, even among those of us who are not Baptists.

The recent popularity of the colorful term "frog-marched" with regard to the much-longed-for indictment of Karl Rove indicates not only an acceptance, but a satisfaction at the thought of not only Mr. Rove being justly indicted and ultimately convicted for his crimes, but being humiliated as well. The visual here, in my mind's eye at least, is one of Mr. Rove being handcuffed and hoisted by his armpits by the police officers removing him, his feet occasionally tippy-toeing the floor, from his office. A comic thought, but, sadly, a mean one.

But one can protest, "but he _does_ have it coming." Well, yes, he is obviously one of the people behind the outing of Valerie Plame and the vindictive smear of her husband, and is deeply involved in the coverup of that, and very likely some of his actions have been felony violations of the law, for which he should be, and hopefully will be, held accountable.

But that's different from being humiliated upon arrest, or later raped in prison. In other words, there's something about many of us, as Americans (and I can certainly see it in myself), that confuses justice with the inflicting of pain on people who, rightly or wrongly, are the objects of our fear and loathing.

Of course, maybe that's just me: possibly it's just an unfortunate remnant of my having been brought up in small-town Texas. But part of my dismay at the Texas prison-rape jury decision is that I think I understand where they are coming from, and how, with a different set of issues, I might well feel the tug of temptation to vote vindictively. I think to myself that I would resist this tug, but maybe that is just the even-stronger temptation of self-flattery.

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