Does Sending Teen Rapists to Prison Make the Problem Worse?
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The following article originally appeared at Jezebel.
By now we're all painfully aware that our news media are apparently incapable of sensitivity when reporting on the Steubenville rape verdict. The undercurrent of a lot of the coverage has been that Ma'lik Richmond and Trent Mays are not the type of people we should put in prison, on account of their good grades and "promising futures." It'd be so much easier if Richmond and Mays were literal piles of garbage fashioned into human form, glued together with feces, and covered in menacing face tattoos. Like real criminals.
The response to the verdict itself has been varied, but some wondered why Richmond and Mays were not tried as adults, or thought they should have faced a harsher penalty than at least one year in juvenile detention. It's not easy for me to reconcile my own feelings on this. Rape and sexual assault are tools of oppression in a society that devalues women's experiences. It goes without saying that this is a feminist issue. But mass incarceration is a feminist issue, too, because it exacerbates rape culture — prisoners are exposed to sexual violence and become aggressive actors in an environment that values hyper-masculinity. So when we call for "harsher penalties" or for more juveniles to enter the adult prison system, what are we asking for? Is the best way to dismantle rape culture through the criminal justice system? (To be fair, the criminal justice system is great at some things, like locking up every single black person. For profit.)
The law plays a role in perpetuating rape culture by under-penalizing crimes that disproportionately affect women (like sexual assault or domestic violence) and over-penalizing non-violent offenses (like all that sweet drug trafficking your granny enjoys so much). Unlike the victim in the Steubenville case, most rapes go unreported. Also unlike Steubenville, most accused rapists walk — only about 3 out of 100 reported rapes result in an actual conviction. If convicted, the average sentence for committing a sex crime, while varied, is about 8 to 9 years, with offenders serving an average of 5 years of their sentence.
The lack of sexual assault convictions is perplexing, because putting people in jail is like, America's top hobby! We're incarcerating a lot of people (especially nonwhite people!), but maybe not so much when they're hurting women (especially nonwhite women!).
Richmond and Mays will spend at least one year in a juvenile detention center somewhere in Ohio. Mays received a sentence of an extra year because he distributed photographs of his under-aged victim. They could be held in juvie until they're 21 years old, but as tempers die down and the internet stops giving a shit about Steubenville (there may be a new puppy video by then), who knows what the judge will do a year from now?
It may seem unfair to watch as Richmond and Mays spend the next year in a center that, I don't know, probably has an inspirational mural and one of those posters that says "TEAMWORK," or whatever. (Or, you know. Maybe not.) After what they did to their young victim, juvenile detention may seem like an unsatisfying punishment — they should have to go to adult prison, right?
Prisons in the United States are a haven for sexual violence. The same gender hierarchies that we feminists fight on the outside are aggravated in prison. Prisoners often adopt hyper-masculine attitudes and behaviors as a survival strategy. Those who do not are susceptible to sexual violence and assault. Men who display any level of traditionally "feminine" behaviors are often "sold" into the prison sex trade. Upon a prisoner's release, the potential absolutely exists for these same behaviors to manifest in society at large.