Crime of the Century

“I hope the prison system will you show you a real good time.”

– Somer Thompson’s grandmother, addressing Jarred Harrell from the stand

“I think the inmates in prison are probably going to do him some justice for me.”

– Somer Thompson’s mother, when asked on “The Today Show” if justice had been done

The grief that has consumed the family of 7-year-old Somer Thompson since the day of her disappearance cannot be measured, allayed or questioned. They’ve been tormented by thoughts of the girl’s final hours, forced to see pictures of her sweet face juxtaposed with the bland, sadistic countenance of her killer, Jarred Harrell. Worst of all, they’ve been forced to go on, to endure the unendurable: life as a family forever abridged.

Beacuse of that, there isn’t a sentient person who could fault them for their comments or question the value of those comments as salve to their wounds. Neither, however, can we ignore what the words mean or – in a just society – accept their implication. The words make manifest a reality that’s alternately a late-night talk show punchline and accepted “punishment” for tens of thousands of inmates in the United States. It’s a call for prison rape.

Naming the thing is not an effort to fault Somer’s family. The nature of the crime they’ve endured is so savage, one would have to be a pure soul indeed to not feel a thirst for similar vengeance.

But while our judicial system is supposed to be a place of punishmen, not torture, the bald expectation is that raped will be meted out by fellow inmates as part of a sentence. It is, in face, a certainty. Hundreds if not thousands of inmates are raped each year – as much as a fifth of the prison population, according to a 2001 report by Human Rights Watch titled “No Escape: Male Rape in U.S. Prisons” ( “Rape is in no way an inevitable consequence of incarceration,” the report’s authors noted. “But it is a predictable one if prison and precutorial authorities do little to prevent and punish it.”

The study, which suggested that rape accompanied by horrific violence was a regular feature of prison life, prompted Congress to pass the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003. Since the, “prison and prosecutorial authorities” have done little to address the issue, and there has been no diminution of the problem. If anything, the idea of prison rape has become even more ingrained in our culture – greeted not with horrior but something akin to glee. As Adam Gopnik wrote in his shattering Jan. 30 piece on prison culture in The New Yorker (, “The normalization of prison rape – like 18th century japery about watching men struggle as they die on the gallows – will surely strike our descendants as chillingly sadistic, incomprehensible on the part of people who thought themselves civilized.”

To be clear: Victims of terrible crime have their own, truly unenviable, right to wish revenge; there is no “wrong” way to mourn such a loss.

But the rest of us are not similarly exempt. Those more than once removed from the Thompson lineage are not entitled to seek rage-based “justice”. Or, if we do – if we sanction prison rape as punishment – we must also embrace the brutality of every kind of torture, as well as the enslavement of the weak, the dominance of the criminal-minded, and the ascendance of our own savage tendencies. Some people are OK with that. But others – arguably most of us – stop somewhere short of that threshold.

This disconnect between what we celebrate about our justice system and what we know happens in prison is largely facilitated by the view that prison rape is not a crime, but a joke. There was a time when lynching was treated much the same way, by mobs that felt similarly righteous. At some point, thinking people and law enforcement joined forces to repudiate that view.

Of course, some will defend till the end their hope that a monster like Jarred Harrell will get what he “deserves” in prison. For those folks, it’s important to remember who else is in there. The environment that seems like just desserts to relatives of Somer Thompson – and indeed, to many thousands of observers and sympathizers – is the same place that State Attorney Angela Corey intends to send Cristian Fernandez, charged as an adult in the death of his younger brother when Cristian was just 12. It’s the place that Corey says Fernandez stands his best chance of “rehabilitation”. It’s a destination he could easily share with Jarred Harrell.

Anne Schind