Acting against prison rape is a Jewish moral obligation


There are currently 12,000 Jews among the total U.S. prison population of 2 million, according to Jewish Prisoner Services International.

Astonishingly, 13 percent of those 2 million, or 260,000, will be the victims of prison rape. Likely, that percentage holds for Jewish inmates as well. No civilized nation should accept this; yet study after study has demonstrated that too many U.S. prison officials turn a blind eye to this human catastrophe and, all too often, we are complicit in it.

Whether out of ignorance, indifference, or a feeling that "you get what you deserve," we have too often been willing to overlook sexual assault in prisons as an unspoken part of the punishment of a prison sentence.

But by overlooking prison rape, we overlook an issue that contributes significantly to recidivism and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. We also overlook the utter disenfranchisement of the 13 percent of prisoners who may deserve to be incarcerated but do not deserve to be assaulted sexually or so completely deprived of their dignity.

The framers of our Constitution recognized this entitlement in the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, of which prison rape is certainly a potent example.

Prison officials are often indifferent to prison rape. In the words of one guard: "[Rape] happens every day, learn to deal with it. It is no big deal."

But it is a big deal, and it is time to end it.

In some cases, not only are prison officials indifferent to sexual assault, they themselves are facilitating it. According to a article, guards at California's Corcoran State Prison are alleged to have used rape as a form of retaliation against belligerent inmates.

In one case, an inmate who once kicked a female guard was purposely put in a cell with a "psychopathic serial rapist," the guards' "resident enforcer."

For three days, the prison reverberated with the sounds of the inmate screaming, crying for help and begging for mercy while he was raped, tortured and humiliated, all in a government-sanctioned "punishment." The inmate was left completely psychologically broken, and the "resident enforcer" received new tennis shoes and extra food for his "services."

This should be a concern for every American Jew.

It is a Jewish issue because of the approximately 12,000 Jews in prison in the United States, and it is a Jewish issue because it is a human rights issue.

One of the Torah's most radical innovations was to put forward the notion that human beings are created b'tselem elohim — in the image of God.

The implications of such a concept are far-reaching and profound, imposing on individuals and societies the obligation never to degrade others, to recognize the potential in all for redemption and to assist the most vulnerable.

That this includes the prisoner is clearly reflected in the Bible in two separate places. The Torah pronounces a prohibition on raping those captured in war (imprisonment for criminal activity was not known in the ancient Jewish world), for both women (Deuteronomy 21:10-16) and men (Deuteronomy 23:16-17).

Now, working together with a coalition of evangelical Christian groups and civil liberties and civil rights organizations, the Reform Jewish movement is pushing hard for legislation to prevent prison rape.

Such legislation was reported out of the House Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security on June 12, and, with support of others of conscience, including the broader Jewish community, this legislation can be enacted into law.

To allow prison rape to continue is to ignore our obligation as Americans to fight against cruel and unusual punishment and our obligation as Jews to affirm the stamp of the divine in every human being.

The writer is the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.