JDI IN THE NEWS - 2002

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, understaffed facilities.

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 prison gangs.

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 victimization.

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 bars.

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.