Swept under the Rug

I awoke one morning last month to read the lead editorial in the Washington Post . The editors were praising the new report of the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, established to eliminate the worst horror an inmate can endure.

I found myself tearing up as I read. I remembered what prison life was like. Inmates constantly feared becoming a predator’s next victim.

Since my release I’ve visited hundreds of prisons. I’ve met many inmates who had been raped. I’ve seen blood on the floor of a cell after a rape, and my heart grieved for the victim. For decades, this barbarism has been hidden from public view. But finally, prison officials and politicians are talking about it and doing something about it.

It all started with a simple phone call. Massachusetts businessman John Kaneb called me to ask what could be done to stop the plague of prison rape. I assumed he was a naïve liberal, thinking we could get our politicians to care about this, and work to solve such a pervasive problem. You’d think someone like me, who has admired William Wilberforce for so long, would know better.

I later met Kaneb (who turned out to be a conservative Christian). He raised money and organized some of his political friends. And Pat Nolan, the head of Justice Fellowship, worked tirelessly to get support from the Congress.

Soon thereafter, I met with President Bush, asking him to deal with this human rights issue here at home. Bush, who vigorously supported campaigns to end human rights abuses abroad, agreed. He asked Congress to create a blue-ribbon commission to study the prison rape problem, and then monitor what was happening in the states and try to compel enforcement when abuses were not dealt with effectively.

Pat Nolan successfully developed a bi-partisan coalition. I remember doing a press conference with Senator Ted Kennedy. Talk about the odd couple! It took three years, but the Prison Rape Elimination Act was finally passed unanimously in 2003.

Last month, the Commission (of which Pat is a member) released its landmark proposal. Among its recommendations: Prison officials must identify and protect at-risk inmates (like juveniles confined with adults). They must monitor their facilities strictly, and do thorough background checks on all staff members—some of whom prey on prisoners.

Reporting procedures must be improved to protect inmate-informers from retaliation. And prisoners who have been assaulted must receive immediate medical treatment. These standards have teeth, and states will be forced to toe the line.

In leading this campaign, Prison Fellowship follows in the best tradition of the Christian faith—one that started with the first-century campaign against infanticide, followed by the many campaigns over the centuries against slavery, child labor, and prostitution. Christians have been in the vanguard of most great human-rights campaigns.

Think what this means: All over America, prisoners know help is coming because God’s people care.

So the next time you despair over the world’s seemingly intractable problems, remember John Kaneb. And never underestimate the power of God to take one individual to drive His people to accomplish great ends.

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