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This week marks the beginning of the next stage in an extended, seven-year process to fulfill the directive of the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003: to establish “zero-tolerance standard for the incidence of prison rape in prisons in the United States.” Meanwhile, George Mason economist Bryan Caplan has proposed what he considers a quick fix for the problem, courtesy of the world of sports: “Reduce the variance of strength and aggression within single-sex prisons by separating prisoners into something like ‘weight classes.'” [Thanks to Whet Moser for the tip]. Caplan explains:

In boxing, heavyweights don’t fight featherweights.  It’s not a fair fight.  But in prison, heavyweights serve their time side-by-side with featherweights.  A simple remedy for rape and brutality, then, is split up prisoners by size and strength.  You could assign the various classes of prisoners to different wings.  Or if that’s too logistically difficult, you could assign each prison a weight class, then reallocate existing prisoners.

You could practically hear the windmill high-fives slapping across the blogosphere. Caplan writes that “my proposal seems like an obvious and cheap improvement over the status quo”; one commenter calls it “a brilliant idea” and says that the Department of Justice should be notified immediately. Ily Somin of The Volokh Conspiracy says of Caplan’s premise that “unless someone points out a really major problem with it, Bryan’s proposal should at least be tried.”

But as with many cheap and obvious solutions to tremendous social ills, a viable “remedy for rape and brutality” isn’t exactly that “simple.” Prison rape doesn’t keep happening because anti-rape activists are lacking in good ideas, but rather because correctional facilities have been reluctant to implement them. For one thing, the idea of reforming prisons by better classifying inmates isn’t new, and weight is far from the sole consideration.

“I think what he’s trying to get at is that proper classification of inmates can reduce sexual abuse, which is certainly the case,” says Darby Hickey, Communications Director for anti-prison-rape organization Just Detention International. “[S]tudies of risk factors have shown that while any prisoner can be abused, some of the most vulnerable inmates are those with prior experiences of victimization; transgender, gender non-conforming, and gay/bi/lesbian inmates or those perceived as such; young inmates; those who are incarcerated for the first time and for non-violent offenses; and inmates with disabilities or mental illness.”

But there’s a larger problem with Caplan’s thesis. Caplan admits that the weight class idea “has no direct effect on the comparable problem of authority-on-prisoner abuse,” but he guesses that “it’s probably easier for a guard to get away with raping a prisoner in an environment where prisoners are raping each other on a regular basis.”

I find Caplan’s assumption—-that the standard of behavior in prisons is set by prisoners, and that correctional officers simply conform to whatever standard of rape acceptance they set—-extremely depressing. A better idea? Hire and train correctional staff who are committed to eliminating both forms of violence in detention centers. Says Hickey, “Classification helps to address inmate-on-inmate violence, but is unlikely to help protect inmates from predatory staff—-that’s where strong policies and practices come into play with regards to training, employment screening, and leadership setting an example that no such abuse will be tolerated.”

Photo via Daz., Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0