Tag Archives | Prison Rape

More on “Weight Classes” for Prison Inmates

In a recent post, I endorsed economist Bryan Caplan’s “weight class” plan for reducing prison rape by separating prisoners by size and weight.

It turns out that Columbia law student Philip Ellenbogen developed the same idea in a 2009 article for the Columbia Journal of Law and Social Problems (see esp. pp. 363-68). As he puts it (footnotes omitted):

[A]victim of prison rape is often much smaller and weaker than the perpetrator of the violence. Therefore, while prior violence should certainly be taken into account, the classification system should incorporate the strength and size of the inmate as well. This Note encourages prison officials to continue to use degree of violence as a factor but within that violence classification, to check each inmate for height and weight, and classify each according to a sliding scale….

Without a size advantage or superior strength, the act of raping someone becomes quite difficult.

Ellenbogen’s article also summarizes evidence showing that prison rape is a serious problem in Canadian prisons as well as in the US, despite the less harsh reputation of the Canadian criminal justice system. This reinforces my point that the failure to control prison rape is in large part the result of structural flaws of government rather than idiosyncratic policy failures. [...]

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A Creative Proposal for Reducing Prison Rape

Back in 2007, I wrote a post explaining why the massive problem of prison rape is the sort of issue that government is likely to handle poorly because of structural flaws:

[T]he government’s failure to address the problem is not accidental. Government is responsive to those who have political power, and prisoners are the classic example of a group that has almost no power, and is generally unpopular with those who do. In most states, prisoners don’t even have the right to vote, and of course their ability to wield political power in other ways (activism; campaign contributions; lobbying, etc.) is also extremely limited. Most of the general public, by contrast, is either unaware of the problem of prison rape or doesn’t care about it very much. And, of course, measures to make it easier for prisoners to sue or otherwise alleviate their plight will be strongly opposed by prison guards unions and other influential interest groups.

This is an extreme case of an important broader lesson about the nature of government: it usually can’t be relied on to protect the politically powerless or even the relatively weak.

My George Mason colleague, economist Bryan Caplan, has an interesting proposal that might reduce prison rape without running into the sorts of political obstacles that usually make the issue so intractable:

Why do we have separate men’s and women’s prisons? You don’t have to envision the alternative for long to have your answer: Co-ed prisons would be a living hell of rape and brutality. Or perhaps I should say: Even more of a living hell of rape and brutality, because that already describes single-sex prisons today….

Once you know how to make prisons even worse, you know how to make them better. Namely: Reduce the variance of strength and aggression

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