Equality 1, Dignity 0

In a crowded corridor, a woman stops a man as he walks by. "Strip down," she barks. "Hold your arms up. Now, bend over." People in the hallway stop to stare at the naked man. "Okay," the woman says. "Turn around. Spread your legs apart." It's a bizarre scene, so far removed from reality for most of us that we can hardly imagine it. But it happens every day in America's prisons. In many prisons, female guards are permitted to strip-search male inmates and to supervise them on the toilet or in the shower. I've seen it myself in visits to prisons around the country. I'll never forget the day I saw a female officer stride up to a male inmate seated on the toilet and demand in a shrill voice that he report somewhere else-immediately. Then she stood and watched while he got dressed. This is called "cross-gender supervision." In ordinary English it means a female correctional officer can intrude on the most private parts of a male inmate's life and humiliate and harass him. Similar invasions of privacy have happened the other way, of course, with female inmates being harassed by male correctional officers. But, fortunately, a few well-publicized incidents raised a public outcry. Several court cases have now upheld the privacy rights of prison inmates against surveillance by opposite-sex correctional officers. But what has actually resulted is a double standard. In female prisons today, the principle of privacy is largely respected. But in male prisons, there's a powerful force working against it. That force is the push for equal employment opportunity. Many women correctional officers argue that their right to equal opportunity means they should be allowed to perform all the functions of male officers. Otherwise, they say, female officers can't compete with males in promotional examinations. As a result, if there's anything forbidden to female guards, they scream "discrimination." And in today's political climate, that's often enough to move mountains. And so, ironically, alongside the court rulings protecting inmate privacy there have now been court rulings undermining privacy-at least for male inmates. Two courts recently ruled that it's not unconstitutional for female officers to be assigned to posts where male inmates are nude, such as in bathrooms. This is a curious case of reverse sexism. If a male officer were to walk in on a female inmate taking a shower, that would be denounced as sexual harassment. But if a female officer is assigned to a post that involves surveillance of men taking showers, that's heralded as an advance of women's rights-as "breaking new ground" for equal employment. In fact, male inmates who object to being strip-searched by a female officer have been chastised for displaying "disrespect" for women. Clearly, in today's society, gender equality has become a greater virtue than either common sense or modesty. Christians ought to be in the vanguard speaking out against sexual harassment, no matter who the victim is. Even a prisoner should be granted the most fundamental human dignity. Even a convicted criminal is created in the image of God. And though he deserves to be justly punished, he does not deserve to be sexually humiliated.


Chuck Colson



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