Whenever a mind-boggling, ineffable crime is committed against a child or children and the alleged perpetrator is apprehended, charged, and slated to face the music, speculation in regard to how diabolically said person will be (or at least should be) treated in prison begins to run rampant … but most often in a direction that has little to do with the eventual reality.
In every jail and prison in the United States child molesters are the lowest of the low … and wishing for a perp to daily—nay, even hourly—be subjected to the same horrendous violations of body and spirit he subjected his underage victims to is quite understandable. U.S. courts can only hand out stiff sentences; they cannot torture. Prisoners, on the other hand, are not constrained by the same niceties.
In the event that accused former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky is eventually convicted of the charges being leveled at him, many folks are conjuring up different kinds of retributive punishments for him to suffer—punishments dished out at the hands of his future fellow prisoners, preferably by a huge dude named Bubba.
However, penology in America has progressed quite a bit from the days of The Shawshank Redemption, and, in spite of the popular cable-TV reality dramas that portray maximum security prisons as brutal hellholes, while some such institutions still exist today, they are more the exceptions than the rule. True, prisons certainly still are not nice, comfy places populated with warm and fuzzy people, but modern classification systems—with a fair degree of accuracy—place prisoners in the institutions that fit their crimes. And one criterion certainly is age. Sandusky, in his late 60s, certainly would not be going to a “gladiator school” populated with young and wild gangbangers, no matter how long his sentence.
Prisons within each state vary widely by custody levels, usually from the high of a level six, which is maximum security, to the low of a level one, a prison camp. And the chances of any sex offender, and especially one with a profile as high as Sandusky’s (if he’s convicted) being brutalized by fellow prisoners in this day and age are very low, due to a couple of factors.
First, since prison officials know that sex offenders would be subjected to brutal treatment at the hands of other prisoners if placed in the general population, for years now those inmates have been segregated. For their own safety, they’re placed in correctional institutions with other sex offenders, the aged, and the disabled. Sandusky, if sentenced to prison, would spend all his time (when and if he got out of administrative segregation, more commonly known as “solitary confinement” where he might initially be placed until the publicity died down … which could be years) with prisoners who perhaps were convicted of crimes even more despicable than those he’s being accused of. Hard as it is to imagine, some people have done much worse things to even much younger children than the offenses Sandusky is charged with.
Indeed, being the pariah he has become and will forever remain (he’s now a virtual prisoner in his own home), Sandusky—if convicted and sentenced—might one day find a kind of freedom and solace behind bars … a place where he could move about—albeit within the confines of the barbed-wired fences—relatively easily, no longer fearful of being looked upon as the scum of the earth; comfortable to associate with his own sick kind in their hellish, twisted milieu.
Perhaps more important, no warden or prison official in his right mind is going to fail to perform his duty to protect such a notorious prisoner as Sandusky would be … no matter the official’s personal feelings regarding his crimes. While public outrage is palpable, warders are used to dealing with those with whom society is enraged, and over time learn to divorce their emotions from the job; they have to, lest it take too high a toll. Putting Sandusky in a situation where he could be sodomized or otherwise harmed by other prisoners is not something a correctional professional would be likely to do, and the temporary gratification certainly would not be worth risking a career over.
Beginning in the early 1990s, prisoners around the country started filing (and in many cases winning) class-action lawsuits against departments of corrections, directors, and wardens over the conditions of their confinement. And gradually, things behind bars changed. The fact that prison authorities have a duty to protect prisoners is now well established, and no state wants to risk paying out huge sums or having to tie up legal staffers defending such actions. Instead, most prison professionals would rather just do their jobs by the book. And rest assured Sandusky would have a phalanx of lawyers looking over everyone’s shoulders every step along the way to make sure their client isn’t treated (no matter how much some members of the public might wish it on him) in an inhumane manner.
The sign over the gates at many U.S. prisons reads: “You’re coming here as punishment, not for punishment.” And, in the end, in a society that prides itself on civility and its lack of barbarism, maybe just getting monsters off the streets and keeping them in places where they can never again harm another child is all we can wish for and hope to accomplish.