Like many Americans, Jan Lastocy was watching the Larry Nassar sentencing hearing this week. She listened to Judge Rosemarie Aquilina.
“I was loving even before the closing that she let every survivor who wanted to talk, talk,” Lastocy told me. “I loved that about her.”
Then came the moment when Aquilinia said this to the packed courtroom:
“Our constitution does not allow for cruel and unusual punishment. If it did, I have to say, I might allow what he did to all of these beautiful souls—these young women in their childhood—I would allow someone or many people to do to him what he did to others.”
Lastocy—a fierce advocate against prison rape since she was raped in a Michigan prison in 1998—cringed.
“I’ve always said that not even my rapist deserved it,” she said, “and, by God, I think if anybody has the right to say that, it would have been me.”
It is, unfortunately, unsurprising that Aquilina said what she did. To be shocked by such a comment would require a willing ignorance of how incredibly common it is to joke about rape in prison, or treat rape as a punishment fitting various crimes. It’s in the movies; it’s on TV; it’s the very first comment on YouTube video of Aquilina speaking. A 2015 Guardian column catalogued with morbid ease the history of American comedians cracking prison-rape jokes. The chances are high that Aquilina heard a lot of comments throughout the courthouse like “He’ll get what he deserves in prison” and “You know what happens to child abusers in prison” from the moment this case was assigned to her. I heard those quips all the time in South Florida when I was a crime reporter, especially when I wrote about child abuse. The cops said it. The lawyers said it. At times, I said it too.
I know that I was wrong. I can’t go back in time and undo my own mistakes and unsay what was said, but over time I’ve reflected on why I said what I did, why I said it with such ease, why I laughed, why I gave into the bloodlust, and why I didn’t even give it a second thought while somehow also carrying myself around like quite the moralist. At its core, I believe, the answer is in a story that Lastocy told me about what happened at the trial of her rapist.
The local paper, the Battle Creek Enquirer, had a reporter at the trial, during which the reporter printed the names of the women raped by the prison guard. Lastocy said she went up to her and asked why. Weren’t reporters supposed to keep the names of rape survivors out of the paper, unless the woman expressly said her name could be used?
“You’re state property,” Lastocy recalled the reporter telling her. “I can print your name if I want to.”
Ensuring that prisoners—even those convicted of child abuse, even those convicted of murder, even Nassar—can live without fear of being sexually assaulted is about a basic recognition that human rights are universal, and not just for some, or for those who can afford good lawyers, or for the famous, or for the right kind of victim. Rape is not only always and everywhere illegal; it is always and everywhere a monstrous moral wrong. And yet it’s all too easy to find stories of prisons—or even entire states—ignoring this, functionally using it as a tool. In November, The Intercept asked “Will the Prison Rape Epidemic Ever Have Its Weinstein Moment?” So long as agents of the state feel comfortable suggesting that rape is, even in the abstract, a just form of punishment, the answer will probably be no.
“This is where our commitment to human rights get tested,” Jesse Lerner-Kinglake, spokesman for Just Detention International, said. “It’s the obvious monsters. These are where we put our principles to the test, we have to examine them. Because for us and the culture and the world we want to build is one where there is a clear line and that line is no one ever deserves to raped—and that includes everyone, even the most odious people.”
No matter how compassionate I might want to be for Aquilina, who sat with patience and composure and listened to the testimony of more than 150 rape survivors, I wish she had never said those words. By saying them, she crossed a line separating judicial impartiality from advocacy, undermining the very structure by which Nassar can be said to have been met with justice, rather than vengeance. She served those who were looking for any reason to ignore or denounce what had just happened, who were eager to find a chance to tell all these women to shut up and get back in their place.
None of this should take away one iota from the power of the 156 women and girls who spoke out against both the man who sexually abused them and the institutions that failed them, or from the power of Aquilina’s decision to let every victim who wished to do so speak. You can draw a direct line from this decision to the press and the public grasping the gravity of what happened, and to actual action being taken. When Nassar was sentenced in federal court last month to 60 years in prison on child pornography charges, every institution that enabled him—Michigan State, USA Gymnastics, the U.S. Olympic Committee—stayed silent, and so did most reporters. What changed was that justice had been done. Injustice was done, too, though, in a moment where a sitting judge all but wished a violation of human rights on a man before her in her court, and in doing so all but suggested that the suffering of Nassar’s victims and those like them could, in some circumstances, have been said to be deserved.
Jan Lastocy says she writes into TV shows when they make prison rape jokes. I asked her if she’s ever heard back from one of them.