The Sexist

Can We Stop Prison Rape By Instituting “Weight Classes”?

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

  • pipi long stockings

    This idea sounds pretty useless to me. The other guys could still be stronger, more aggressive, in a gang, have a weapon.

  • Jiggly Puff

    Won't this just make the strong rapists stronger rapists?

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  • squirrely girl

    I'm not sure how this would correct issues of gang rape either...

  • Toysoldier

    Won’t this just make the strong rapists stronger rapists?

    No. The idea presumes that larger inmates commit the majority of the rapes. While that is possible, we have enough evidence to so that size does not really matter when it comes to sexual violence. The proposal would simply create new pecking orders. Separating inmates by weight would only mean physically smaller inmates would assault other physically smaller inmates.

    The problem is not just the inmates who are violent. The problem is the failure of prison officials to control the environment, protect inmates from abusive inmates and guards, and to punish those who harm inmates, especially offending guards.

  • kza

    I don't think he's selling as a great solution it seems more like a no cost thing they could implent that would do nothing but help.

  • Aaron


    It might help a little, but it doesn't really seem to address the main problems. If you read the previous post with all the prison rape stories, two fairly common elements were the involvement of guards (directly or indirectly), and the involvement of a group or gang of perpetrators.

    Having your attacker(s) be the same size as you doesn't help a whole lot if you've brought a fist to a shank/gang/guard fight.

    It could make sense to separate people who are there for non-violent offenses or people who have a high risk of victimization, but that's still not going to do a whole lot if the institution-wide problems aren't addressed.

  • Rick Mangus

    Isn't one story of this enough for Christ sake! Amanda change the name of your column to, 'BEATING A DEAD HORSE'

  • Tasha Fierce

    I know, Rick! Prison rape is SOOOO yesterday! Why keep bringing attention to it? ^5

  • kza

    "It might help a little, but it doesn’t really seem to address the main problems. If you read the previous post with all the prison rape stories, two fairly common elements were the involvement of guards (directly or indirectly), and the involvement of a group or gang of perpetrators."

    Ok? It's a band aid solution that could stop a few rapes, what does it have to do with gangs or guards? Let's say it prevents 100 rapes, would it not be worth doing?

  • Aaron


    The main problem is that I don't buy that a size difference between individuals is a significant cause of prison rapes. Even if it was, it would require at the absolute least the inaction of the guards for it to happen nearly as much as it does.

    I also think you're underestimating the costs involved. Shuffling a bunch of people around a prison isn't easy, especially when the prison is severely overcrowded (as a lot of prison systems are) and the "weight classes" don't match up well to the way the facilities are currently set up.

    It's hard enough to get the political will moving to reform prisons at all. If we're going to get behind a solution, I think it should be one that has a good chance of reducing prison rapes across the board, rather than a band-aid solution that will likely give people a false sense that the problem is being effectively handled.

  • kza

    There's nothing wrong with a stop gap solution that would help until a real permanant solution comes along. And to save cost maybe they start doing it now and not shift around people who are already locked up. And as for size being an issue with prison rape, there is no one my size who is ever going to rape me, that's just not going to happen. If I'm locked up with a dude who's a foot taller than me I might be more reluctant to fight back knowing I'm going to get my ass kicked. At least I would feel a bit more secure knowing I had a punchers chance. I agree that it's not a solution but I don't see the point of shooting down low cost measure that can help even if it's the slightest relief. I do see your points though.

  • Eo

    The elephant in the room is the race issue.

    White guys can become the property of black and hispanic guys and are sought out by both races, political correctness is standing in the way of addressing this aspect of the issue, as one feminist here said ... "yes, but why do they do that?" implying that these guys are to blame for their own rapes. Another issue is female staff, they are protected by politically correct though boxes.

    I fully support seperate wings for the vulernable.

  • Toysoldier

    There’s nothing wrong with a stop gap solution that would help until a real permanant solution comes along.

    This is not a stop gap solution that would actually help. One assumes that smaller people are less likely to rape, but there is nothing to support that assumption. The only difference between the current situation and the new one would be that larger inmates could not target by smaller inmates. Instead, inmates would target other inmates of the same size.

    This also would not address the host of other issues that occur in prison, such as gangs, race issues, and sex abuse committed by guards (particularly in juvenile prisons where female guards commit the majority of prison rape). If anything, it would exacerbate those problems and lead to more sexual violence.

    The way actually solve the problem is by keeping those most at risk separated, releasing non-violent offenders, and addressing the lack of concern for this issue by prison officials.

  • Katie

    I will never understand people who patronize blogs whose author(s) they routinely disagree with. Why would you visit a blog everyday to complain everyday that its author is writing about what she writes about everyday?

    Engaging in antagonistic dialogue (I'm being generous with that) is one thing, but to complain about the topic choices on a blog is just fucking stupid. You don't see me on the Drudge Report, asking them to please not talk about all those Mexicans so much.

  • Kristina

    Katie, I think you may be my favorite poster on this thing. You always seem to pop up and go "please stop the animosity because headaches are obnoxious and you give me them". I'm not being sarcastic. This is truly a thank you post and nothing more. :)

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  • kza

    "Instead, inmates would target other inmates of the same size."

    Inmates of the same size=harder rape then someone half your size.

    "This also would not address the host of other issues that occur in prison, such as gangs, race issues, and sex abuse committed by guards"

    /bangs head against wall.

    No shit that's not it's intention.

  • Toysoldier

    Inmates of the same size=harder rape then someone half your size.

    And you base this claim on what?

    No shit that’s not it’s intention.

    Except all those things greatly contribute to the sexual violence in prisons. Ignoring gang issues while moving inmates around would mean potentially placing rival gang members together, which may lead to one of them being raped by the other. The same goes for racial conflicts and for guards. The solution does not fix the problem. It only shifts it around.

    I do not think the solution to dealing with prison rape should be to copy the policies of the Catholic Church.

  • mdesus

    knowing bryan a bit I can say that he isn't looking for a universal solution. He is much more inclined to look for marginal solutions. Part of the problem with any victims rites organization is they are too full of ideas. They tend to look for big picture solutions rather than for solutions that could marginally improve the situation for some percentage of victims, or potential victims. The fact is that in any situation that has a somewhat lawless atmosphere even those tasked with enforcing the rules are more likely to break them. Hiring and training an entire workforce is an extremely expensive prospect. Prisons in general have a powerful lobbying force, and are likely to fight tooth and nail to prevent this from happening. Frankly, eliminating sexual violence from American prisons remains a pipe dream. However, any advocate needs to first focus on the victim, and the processes that allowed them to be victimized. I would much rather serve a prison sentence in an institution divided on these lines than in an institution without these sorts of dividers. I know that in Rykers Island they have a ward exclusively for homosexual transgender men. I am not sure how one goes about being admitted to this ward rather than with the general population, but in this specific part of the prison they even offer easy access to condoms.

  • kza

    Inmates of the same size=harder rape then someone half your size.

    And you base this claim on what?

    Well logic and the fact that in my experiece getting into fights, it's a lot easier to take on someone my size...kinda common sense. Some skinny red neck who's been on meth for a few years probably isn't going to be able to rape a 250 lb guy. And that 250 lb guy is also unlikey to rape an imprisoned former boxing heavy weight.

    "Ignoring gang issues while moving inmates around would mean potentially placing rival gang members together,"

    Gang member might be less likely to rape fellow gang members. I generally don't rape my friends I don't know about you...

  • Toysoldier

    Actually, logic would dictate that anyone in the right situation could rape any person. One's personal experience is not representative of a given situation. It is possible that you can fend off someone your own size. However, it is also possible that other people cannot fend off an attacker of the same size. Considering that gangs they threaten, beat, and kill fellow gang members there is no reason to assume they would not rape a fellow gang member.

  • kza

    Well I could fight off someone my own size. So if I went to jail this simple little idea could stop me from getting raped. Yet you are against it. Thanks a lot!