LISTEN TO Prince George's County Circuit Judge Vincent Femia on the subject of homosexual rape in jail: "This kind of thing is so bad you shut your mind to it. It's easier to blot it out than to come to grips with the fact that it is happening in our own society." He's right, of course. The subject is ugly and brutal, the victims are often unattractive, and changing the conditions that exist will obviously not be easy. But the just-completed series of articles in this paper by Loretta Tofani really demands that we confront this situation we would all prefer to ignore.
The series studied two dozen cases of homosexual rape in the Prince George's County jail. Such offenses are not rare in this institution, nor are they confined to any one county or state. Prince George's is not unique in this. But--and this is the point-- the conditions described are horrendous even if they are typical. They are in no way disposed of by recommending that new facilities be constructed, even though, clearly, overcrowding makes a huge contribution and expanded facilities are direly needed. But does this mean that nothing can be done right away? The answer is, only if there is no will to do so. Suppose we weren't so fatalistic and/or indifferent where this subject is concerned. Here is a plan of action:
A clearly defined and rigorously enforced policy of separating violent from nonviolent detainees must be established. It is neither unreasonable nor unfairly discriminatory to make distinctions among detainees, even if they have not yet been convicted of an offense. It's just common sense. Separation is imperative not because some "deserve" to be raped while others do not, but because it will allow jail officials to concentrate attention on those most likely to be violent. Shoplifters and traffic offenders should not be placed in the same holding area as accused murderers and armed robbers. It's as simple as that.
Activity in cells and holding rooms must be monitored constantly by the guards. This means getting out of a chair and walking around. No dozing. No once-every-eight-hours strolls. And no cells hidden from view by blankets and plastic bags. Who's in charge here, anyway? Haul down those "curtains" and anything else the prisoners put up to obstruct the view. And if the jail is so poorly designed that the guards cannot easily see the inside of the cell, how about some strategically placed mirrors, or closed-circuit TV monitors? If lights are needed, put them outside the cells, where the prisoners can't break them.
Finally, and most important, leadership is needed at the top. Arnett Gaston, the director of the detention center, denies that a serious problem exists. "The same thing happens in schools," he is quoted as saying. What schools can he possibly be talking about? This "boys will be boys" attitude in the face of vicious, humiliating and bloody assaults is grotesque. Society has committed hundreds of human beings -- some guilty of crimes, some not -- to Mr. Gaston's custody. He is acting for all of us, and we have the right to demand, at the very least, that he take control, impose order and discipline and protect all in his custody from physical harm and abuse. Prince George's County Executive Larry Hogan, now a candidate for the U.S. Senate, has the ultimate responsibility for conditions in the county jails. His leadership in proposing and putting into practice a plan of action would be welcomed by the voters of Maryland.