There’s a dirty not-so-little secret beneath the Stanford sexual assault outrage. I know, I know. It’s hard to imagine anything left unspoken about the Brock Turner case.
Every day’s news unleashes fresh backlash. There’s the recall campaign against the judge who ordered the Stanford swimmer to serve only six months in jail for drunkenly violating a passed-out woman. There are the state lawmakers who are pushing to redefine rape to include the digital penetration that was the crime in this instance.
There are the Santa Clara County prosecutors who this week got Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky removed from another sex crime case. And the juror who called the light sentence shameful.
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But at the risk of attracting pitchforks, I don’t blame the judge for minimizing Turner’s incarceration. And no, it’s not because, as a mother of daughters, I think it’s OK to assault unconscious women.
It’s because, like everyone in proximity to this conversation, I know what happens to people in prison, and despite efforts at reform, it’s still too often a far cry from anything resembling justice.
“This would be a death sentence for him,” Turner’s terrified mother, Carleen, wrote to the judge in a letter roundly mocked by the public. Unfortunately, she’s not entirely off base and not just regarding the son who, until this incident, “never even had a demerit in high school.”
Privileged or poor, weak or strong, regardless of race, creed or color, it’s the rule, not the exception, for young men to come away from a stint in jail or prison broken and traumatized.
Nearly 1,400 jail and prison inmates in California died in custody due to homicide, suicide or something other than natural causes between 2005 and 2014, according to the California Department of Justice. And that tragic statistic is probably conservative, given the number of suspicious deaths attributed to natural causes.
Jail violence has surged throughout the state since the 2011 realignment of the state penal system – intended to reduce prison overcrowding – shifted thousands of lower-level, but still pretty hardened prison inmates to county lockups.
A 2013 Associated Press analysis of assault records in the 10 counties that make up most of California’s jail population found an increase of some 30 percent in inmate fights and attacks on jail employees, just in realignment’s first year.
In the Santa Clara County jail, where Turner is in protective custody, three guards are facing murder charges in the death of a mentally ill inmate, and sweeping reforms have been called for by a blue ribbon commission. In a 2014 study, the county reported a 280 percent increase in gang-related jail assaults, and a 20 percent increase in inmate attacks on jail guards.
Meanwhile, according to 2012 numbers from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, the likelihood of an inmate – any inmate – becoming a victim of sexual assault in jail or prison is about 30 times higher than for a free woman such as Brock Turner’s victim. And it’s much, much higher than that if the inmate is gay, mentally ill or a convicted sex offender.
Roughly 200,000 people each year are raped in U.S. jails and prisons, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports. That’s about 4.2 percent of prison inmates and about 3.2 percent of jail inmates. Generally, about a third of the abuse happens within the first 24 hours of incarceration, and at least half of it is committed by corrections staffers.
“And we hear a lot from folks in California,” said Linda McFarlane, deputy executive director of Just Detention International, a human rights organization that advocates for an end to sexual abuse of incarcerated people.
“I’ve seen the comments about Brock Turner,” she said. “ ‘He’ll get what’s coming to him. ‘Maybe now he’ll know what it feels like.’ But the solution isn’t let prisons and jails remain violent.”
Was the judge right to worry that he’d be in danger? “Yes,” she said. “Absolutely.”
But, she added, Turner is hardly the only inmate to fear for. And the fallout from a dangerous penal system doesn’t stop at the walls of the prison.
“This issue affects many more people than the prisoners,” she said. “When people re-enter a community traumatized, it affects everyone – their families, their communities.”
The punishment for a crime is supposed to be the loss of freedom. We’re supposed to put people behind bars to protect the public, not to subject the guilty to medieval brutalization. But too often, that’s not how it turns out.
And justice doesn’t work when the only choice is a slap on the wrist or a one-size-fits all dungeon. People who commit crimes should pay, but their debt to society shouldn’t include the fear of being psychologically or physically crippled for life, or worse, not surviving. Something is wrong when even the guards feel dehumanized by the system.
As the Brock Turner talk inevitably fades into yesterday’s Twitter chatter, maybe we ought to be talking about that.