Silja J.A. Talvi, Prison's Shameful Secret, The Nation, Sept. 9, 2002.
Roderick Johnson, a 33-year-old
African-American Navy veteran from a small town in rural Texas, didn't ask
for it. Prison did it to him, and his life will never be the same.
While serving time for a nonviolent offense, Johnson endured the
equivalent of sexual slavery at the hands of prison gangs. A young, openly
gay man, Johnson knew better than to try to hide his sexual orientation
from prison officials. What Johnson asked for, and should have received,
was housing in protective custody.
But when he got to prison, a high-ranking guard answered Johnson's request
for safekeeping by telling him, "we don't protect 'punks' on this farm."
In prison jargon, "punks" are those inmates forced into a sexually
submissive role. Whether straight or gay, their lives are lived in
servitude to more aggressive inmates. Once identified as punks, men like
Johnson find themselves at the bottom of a harsh, rigidly defined prison
pecking order where guards and wardens rule over increasingly overcrowded,
This kind of hypermasculinized prison hierarchy is something that Lara
Stemple, the Executive Director of the twenty-year-old nonprofit
organization Stop Prisoner Rape (SPR) says is "systemic to the extent that
most correctional officers turn a blind eye to it, and leave inmates to
fend for themselves."
What Johnson got next was something that his sentence never stipulated and
that his family could have never imagined. Over the course of eighteen
months, Johnson was brutalized, raped and "sold" hundreds of times by
What's worse, Johnson's pleas for help from prison administrators were
repeatedly mocked and went unheeded. His family tried to help, but the
assurances they received were for naught. Seven times, an increasingly
suicidal Johnson went before the prison's all-white classification
committee, begging to be placed in safekeeping. In return, Johnson was
admonished by administrators for his requests, called a "ho" and a
"tramp," and told to "learn to fight or accept the fucking."
It's hard to say what, exactly, would have happened to Johnson had he not
written to the ACLU's National Prison Project, begging for any assistance
they could provide. After investigating the matter, the ACLU found the
situation to be so egregious that they filed a federal lawsuit in April
against prison officials who had refused to halt the abuse. It was then,
and only then, that Johnson was transferred to a safer setting.
"It's incomprehensible to think about being raped every day for eighteen
months," says Gotsch. "The fact that prison officials knew that this was
going on and just ignored and laughed at it is devastating."
While Johnson is, at least for the time being, able to serve out the rest
of his sentence without further violation, thousands of other
prisoners--male and female alike--are living out the horror of sexual
Texas juvenile inmate Rodney Hulin was one such victim. Sentenced in 1995
to an eight-year sentence for arson, the 5'2", 125-pound, 17-year-old was
housed in an adult prison. Raped repeatedly and then denied protective
custody, Hulin hung himself in January 1996, went into a coma and died
four months later.
Despite incidents like these, the homophobic wall of silence surrounding
male-on-male prison rape--and the regular barrage of insipid "don't drop
the soap" prison jokes--have kept the issue from being perceived as the
serious human rights abuse that it is.
For men, rape and sexual abuse in prison is now so commonplace that
according to a recent study, one in four male prisoners in state and
federal facilities experience pressured or forced sexual contact.
A bright spot in this otherwise dismal situation is the recent
introduction of the Prison Rape Reduction Act of 2002, co-sponsored by
Senators Ted Kennedy and Jeff Sessions, and Representatives Bobby Scott
and Frank Wolf. This first-ever federal, bipartisan legislation addresses
the pervasive problem of prison rape. If passed, it would create three new
programs in the Department of Justice, including one to collect statistics
on sexual abuse in prison, one to provide training on the issue and
another to fund new programs to prevent and reduce sexual abuse behind
The bill, as Gotsch explains, "is a first step in the right direction."
What remains to be done is the monumental task of revisiting the design
and intent of prison systems which serve to enforce and magnify
male-on-male violence, class and race tensions, and a fiercely
competitive, coercive and destructive model of human interaction. It's an
old, familiar system that dehumanizes everyone trapped within it, and very
nearly guarantees a vicious cycle of abuse, disease and self-hatred in
those we condemn to experience it.