When is sexual abuse not sexual abuse? When it happens to a prisoner.

When is sexual abuse not sexual abuse? When it happens to a prisoner.

This past week saw the handing down of an important ruling in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals regarding the rights of prisoners, specifically a prisoner’s right not to be sexually abused by prison officials. If you’re questioning how this could even have been a question before the Supreme Court, don’t worry, you’re not alone.

The fact of the matter is that just this year, the New York Northern District Court dismissed the complaints of inmates James Crawford and Thadeus Corley that not only were they abused by Officer Simon Prindle at the Eastern Correctional Facility, but that their complaints (and those of at least twenty others) were ignored by Superintendent William Brown.

The dismissal was not based on any question of the events having occurred—that was not in doubt—but rather, it was premised on the notion that there is a certain level of sexual abuse that can be deemed acceptable in the prison setting. In granting the defendant’s motion to dismiss for “failure to state a claim,” Judge Norman Mordue agreed with their citing of the 1997 Boddie v Schneider case as evidence that what had occurred was not abuse. In doing so, Judge Mordue stated that the abuse could not be considered a violation of the Eighth Amendment (against cruel and unusual punishment) as they were not “prolonged and did not cause physical pain.”

As any victim of sexual abuse—whether imprisoned or not—can attest, the length, incidence, or breadth of the event does not matter in the least. What is most shocking about the ruling is that the appeals court actually has to instruct lower courts to take “evolving understanding[s] of common decency into account.” Fortunately, the questionable nature of this logic was not lost on the Second Circuit, which overturned that dismissal last week.

The Boddie case of 1997 set out the standards by which contact of a prisoner by an officer can be considered abuse. Its summary findings were that any “contact with an inmate’s genitalia or other intimate areas, which serves no penological purpose and is undertaken with the intent to gratify the officer’s sexual desire or to humiliate the inmate, violates the Eighth Amendment.”

Yet somehow, the appeals court had to spell out to the lower court how it is that the officer’s actions with the dozens of prisoners he molested constituted abuse, stating “a single incident of abuse, if sufficiently severe or serious, may violate an inmate’s Eighth Amendment rights no less than repetitive, abusive conduct” and that an inmate “need not allege that there was penetration, physical injury, or direct contact with uncovered genitalia.”  They further go on to explain that contemporary standards of decency have evolved such that society’s acceptance of prisoner abuse has diminished: “Moreover, we recognize that sexual abuse of prisoners, once passively accepted by society, deeply offends today’s standards of decency.”

But offending our sense of common decency, such acts are considered criminal in nearly every state.  Outside the prison environment, enforcement of such criminal actions is seriously prosecuted, but yet within these walls, they are treated as though they are minor inconveniences to the lives of prisoners.

Many rights are withheld from prisoners, but our human rights are not among them. So while one’s gut instinct might be to cite this as a victory for prisoners’ rights, and in some ways, it certainly is. But in so many other ways, it’s a sad testament to the state of prisoners’ rights that we are told to celebrate for affording prisoners freedom from sexual abuse.