Washington, D.C., June 14, 2005
Hello, my name is Tom Cahill. Nearly 40 years ago, I was beaten and raped for 24 hours in a jail cell in San Antonio, Texas while I was locked up for civil disobedience. That assault has changed my life in a way that no other event could, or should.
I was a veteran who served my country honorably in the U.S. Air Force for four years before starting an alternative newspaper. In 1967, I committed an act of civil disobedience during a labor strike at a factory. Later, I was arrested for failing to comply with the terms of my probation – paying $10 a month in restitution.
As I walked with a guard to that overcrowded cell, I didn’t really know what to expect. But I soon found out. One of the prisoners turned and yelled out “fresh meat.” I turned and looked at the guard, and he was smiling. After lights out, that’s when it started.
Six or seven guys beat me and raped me while another two dozen guys just looked away.
I remember being bounced off the walls and the floor and a bunk like a ball in a pinball machine. They put me inside a mattress cover and then set it on fire. Then someone urinated on it to put it out. I kept waiting for it to end, but it went on, and on, and on.
The guards knew what was going on. All corrections officials know what goes on in their facilities. They have to know – their lives depend on it.
My cellmate told me later that the guards lied and told them I was a child molester, and if they “took care of me” they would get an extra ration of Jello.
After the assault, they kept me in the cell for two weeks – until the bruises started to fade. They wanted to make sure I learned my lesson. They were sending a message that civil disobedience wouldn’t be tolerated. They couldn’t silence my dissent legally, so they had to resort to extralegal activities.
At first I felt shame and humiliation over being raped. Later, I realized that it was not my shame – it was my country’s shame. As a veteran, I feel my country betrayed me.
America has a lot to answer for.
After I was released from jail, I tried to live a normal life, but the rape haunted me. I had flashbacks and nightmares. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. My marriage and my business failed. I’ve been arrested over and over again for acting out. I’ve had sexual problems. I’ve been filled with anger for nearly four decades.
Besides the obvious costs to my life, the rape has taken its toll in dollars and cents. Can you put a cost on an incident of prison rape? I have. I believe that one day I spent in jail has cost the government and the taxpayers at least $300,000.
I’ve been hospitalized more times than I can count. My career as a journalist and photographer was completely derailed, which means lost income tax and spending power. For the past two decades, I’ve received a non-service-connected disability pension from the VA at a cost of about $200,000 in connection with the only major trauma I’ve ever suffered – the rape.
I’m only one man. It’s hard to say how many men and women are the victims of sexual assault behind bars each year, but with 2 million people imprisoned at any given time in this country, I think it’s a significant number. I’ve never been able to find an accountant who could calculate the cost of prisoner rape, but I believe it costs us millions and millions of dollars.
Although some people think the threat of rape behind bars keeps people from becoming criminals, the truth is, prisoner rape creates more criminals. It takes minor criminals and turns them into violent felons. It creates angry young men and women. Rape in prison just creates more crime.
I urge the PREA Commission to do everything in its power to make our prisons and jails safer by preventing sexual violence behind bars. In addition to saving a lot of money, you’ll be saving a lot of lives. Thank you.
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