Rape, How Funny Is It?,
LA Times, November 3, 2002.
Quick Now: What Has 2 Million Victims, Turns Passive Men Violent, Spreads
HIV and Could Be Stopped Overnight? If You Said 'Prison Rape,' You're in
on the Joke.
Bill Handel is a drive-time radio host on L.A.'s KFI-AM (640). He stays
popular because he has a feel for what makes his audience chuckle as they
head for that unfunny 9 a.m. encounter with the boss. His repertoire
includes prison rape jokes, the tired but reliable
picking-up-soap-in-the-shower ones, especially when the hapless subject is
a celebrated or heinous convict. "When people hear about a victim" of
prison rape, Handel explains, the response is: "So he should have stayed
out of jail!"
Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, the chief law enforcement official of California,
told the Wall Street Journal last year that Enron CEO Kenneth Lay deserved
to be jailed with a cellmate who would say to him, "Hi. My name is Spike,
Everyone, it seems, is in on prison rape jokes. Don't worry about crossing
a line because when the subject is inmates raping other inmates, people
don't empathize. They laugh.
So have you heard this one? The FBI says that 89,107 women reported rapes
in the U.S. in 1999. Prison experts say that at least twice that number of
men are raped each year in prison. "Prison rape is the most tolerated act
of terrorism in the U.S.," says James E. Robertson, a professor of
corrections at Minnesota State University, Mankato, who has studied the
problem for 15 years.
Precise numbers of these rapes are not available. Neither the federal
government nor the state of California keep statistics on the crime. But
this much is known: Just as heterosexual rapes across the U.S. are often
not reported, sexual abuse in prison is "massively underreported," says
Terry Kupers of Oakland, a psychiatrist who has written and edited books
on prison conditions. Kupers believes that more than one-third of all
incoming inmates in American jails and prisons are either sexually
assaulted or are in imminent danger of attack.
Cindy Struckman-Johnson, a psychology professor at the University of South
Dakota, says that studies she has conducted suggest that at least 22% of
the some 2 million male prisoners nationwide have been either pressured or
forced to submit to sex at least once. Stop Prisoner Rape, an organization
co-founded by Stephen Donaldson, a Vietnam veteran who was raped
repeatedly after being jailed for protesting the Vietnam War, argues that
one prisoner in five has been sexually abused and that one in 10 has been
Yet most Americans accept prison rape as a harsh reality, and their jokes
imply that the victims are getting their just reward. "The only people who
care are the relatives, and they are usually poor and uneducated,"
explains Cal Skinner Jr., a conservative Republican who fought for state
prison reform during eight terms in the Illinois Legislature. Skinner
eventually paid a high price for his activism when he lost a reelection
bid to an opponent who mocked his efforts to end prison rape. But he and
others continue to work against the abuses. Their findings won't set up
many punch lines.
The victims often haven't been convicted of crimes, Kupers says. Many
prison rapes happen in poorly supervised local jails to short-time
prisoners who are found innocent or sometimes not even charged with a
Most of those who have been convicted are serving time for nonviolent
offenses. But to survive behind bars, they are forced to adapt to the
culture of brutality, says Vincent Schiraldi, president of the Justice
Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. Many have trouble leaving it behind
once set free. "Prisons have a far better chance of turning a nonviolent
inmate into an armed robber than into a law-abiding citizen," Schiraldi
Worse still is Skinner's ominous warning that research conducted by his
legislative staff found an alarming amount of HIV among prisoners. "Prison
systems in many states are a major breeding grounds for the AIDS virus,
and that can give rape victims an unadjudicated death sentence. How can
society live with that?"
Seven years ago, Lawrence Bittenbender was held temporarily in the Santa
Clara County jail in San Jose awaiting extradition to the state of
Washington to serve time for child molestation, a conviction to which he
protests his innocence and blames his ex-wife for a false accusation. He
was placed in a dormitory that housed 28 men. At 2 a.m., he was jumped by
five inmates who, he believes, had been told by guards of the nature of
the charge against him. He says he was awakened by a blanket thrown over
his head and the bodies of several men piling on top. He was forced to
endure at least a half-hour of rape.
"I had no idea it was coming," he says. "All of a sudden, I couldn't
breathe. Someone grabbed at my clothes. Someone thumped my head." The
raping "was excruciating, pain that seemed to go on forever. There was
blood everywhere." He says he required surgery to repair the damage to his
Bittenbender, now 46, is serving time in McNeil Island Corrections Center
in Washington. He is bitter and angry, a powerful man ready to use his
strength and rage without hesitation. He never stops being watchful and
pumps iron preparing for the day of the next attack. "I know how to take
care of myself now. If someone tries it again, no matter how long his
sentence is, he'll be free in the morning. I'll take a lot of damage, and
I'll kill him." To prove his resolve, he goes to great lengths to explain
an ingenious way that a "shiv" (homemade knife) can be made out of
The state of California knows that violent sexual assaults are common, but
refuses to take meaningful steps to prevent them, says a high-ranking
official with the Department of Corrections who asked that his name be
withheld. Prison rape "is not treated as a problem," he says. "We don't do
anywhere near all we could to prevent it."
California corrections officials say they have no idea how many rapes
occur in their prisons, although Brian Parry, a corrections assistant
director who recently retired, says, "In terms of numbers, I don't see it
as a big problem. It doesn't get reported very frequently."
Others in the department disagree. They see rape as a cancer that
corrections does not fight aggressively because acknowledging its extent
would make the department look bad and make the state more vulnerable to
lawsuits, the high-ranking official says. It would also remove a tool that
many prison guards use to control prisoners, Robertson says. "There's an
implicit quid pro quo between some officers and gangs, as well as the more
aggressive inmates: You keep the lid on and we'll leave you alone."
Paul Wright, 37, is editor of Prison Legal News, a monthly newspaper,
while serving time at Monroe Correctional Complex in Washington for the
botched robbery-murder of a drug dealer in 1987. He has never been
attacked in prison because, he says, "I was older, bigger and could defend
myself." But he became aware of the problem while confined. "We'd be
watching television, and you know how you get to a silent part of a movie?
We'd hear prisoners screaming for help: 'Guard, guard, help! I'm being
raped!' and guards wouldn't respond."
The issue briefly flared into prominence in California in 1998, when four
guards at Corcoran State Prison near Fresno stood trial on the criminal
charge that they had used rape as a disciplinary tool by allowing a
sinister inmate called the "Booty Bandit" to rape an L.A. gang member
named Eddie Dillard repeatedly. The four were acquitted. Even so, says the
corrections official, some guards allow rapes to go on. "Absolutely. It's
a mentality and ego thing [among guards] who think, 'I'm God and I have
the power.' "
William Rigg, a retired lieutenant in the California Department of
Corrections, says the prison system simply regards rapes with
indifference. "They just don't care, from the C.O.s [correctional
officers] all the way up to the director of corrections. The governor, to
him the CDC is a pain in the butt. The less he hears about it, the happier
The powerful union that represents prison guards, the California
Correctional Peace Officers Assn., does not see inmate sexual assault as a
problem. Lance Corcoran, executive vice president and a former guard, says
offenses may be "underreported," but he believes that most occasions of
sexual contact are consensual. He says it is "nonsense" to claim that some
guards conspire to use sexual assault as a tool of manipulation.
Roscoe Pondexter of Fresno, who served as a guard for eight years in
Soledad and Corcoran prisons before resigning in 1996, says he personally
reported to superiors five inmate complaints of sexual assault. "They
weren't taken seriously," he says. "There was no great effort to
Pondexter says that, typically, victims tend to be troublemakers, child
molesters and rapists, the very people whom guards do not find
sympathetic. He says guards feel that such victims "got what they
deserved. They did it to someone on the streets, so now someone is doing
it to them."
People on the outside blink in bewilderment at the idea of one man raping
another. The confusion begins with any notion that these are typical
homosexual activities. Technically, that may be true, but the term is not
valid in the eyes of the most important definers--the prisoners. As in
heterosexual rapes, primary motivations are an intermingling of power,
domination and anger. It is accepted dogma in prison that rapists are not
homosexuals, says Chuck Terry, 50, an assistant professor of sociology and
criminal justice at St. Louis University who served time in California and
Oregon prisons for heroin use. The distinction allows predators to
masquerade their activities as super-masculine.
Convicted rapists and child molesters are always targets of prison
rapists, but also at grave risk are inmates who are young and naive,
short-termers, or those who are effeminate in appearance or manner and not
aggressive in defending themselves. Their attackers are generally gang
members in for long-term violent offenses.
A former sex criminal, who asked not to be identified, describes how it
"goes down," as though relating a trip to the grocery store. Since his
release from California's Chuckawalla Valley State Prison, he has become a
drug dealer in Southern California and, his acquaintances say, is almost
certainly a murderer.
"The biggest man, strongest man [in prison] was a friend of mine, Bo, from
Washington, D.C.," the former inmate says. "He raped about 20 men. He had
a fetish. On the outside, he raped women for a hobby. That's why he ended
up there. But when he got into the penitentiary, a man was a desired thing
for him. I helped him set up men and I would partake also. He was a good
friend, but if he didn't like you, he'd rape you before he killed you.
"I used to sic Bo on a lot of men. White, black, Mexican. For all kinds of
reasons. Maybe someone [would] be sitting here and not get up fast enough.
We rolled with the Black Guerrilla Family, part of the nationwide
penitentiary circuit." As for homosexuals or men with light skin, "they'd
be raped all the time. Once you turned 'em, they gonna be women from then
on. Aryan Nation did their own people, too. If we had one who didn't have
any backbone, we might trade him to them for a favor and they'd do the
Jim Hogshire, 44, is a writer who has looked at bars from the wrong
direction. He is the author of "You're Going to Prison," a primer on the
criminal justice system. "Prison is a deadly place occupied by weird guys
who are usually not very bright, who are very aggressive and often
sociopathic," Hogshire says. "These are guys who in the free world, if
they can't get an online computer hook-up, they go berserk. Cutting in
front of them in the chow line is something huge. It's like being
transplanted back to the Middle Ages. Once you understand that, you can
accept that rape is an extremely common occurrence, and anyone not
morbidly obese or covered with sores faces the likelihood of having to
submit to sexual assault."
He says the most vulnerable will be beaten and raped as often as necessary
until they seek help from an "old man," a predator who will give
protection but will also make sexual demands. "Once you've become
someone's punk, you stay a punk and your old man will use you any way he
wants. He might send you out to perform sexual acts for a marijuana joint,
candy or anything else of value. You have become 'currency.' "
Male victims of prison rape very likely will react to the trauma of rape
with similar emotions as female victims: shock, anger, guilt and
humiliation, says Lara Stemple, executive director of Stop Prisoner Rape,
which is based in Los Angeles. These feelings are intensified if they are
raped repeatedly, which sometimes occurs for years. They also feel deep
shame at being unable to defend themselves, and that failure destroys
their sense of manhood, she says.
There is a perception that prison rapists are black and victims white, but
many who have observed it say this is an oversimplification. However, most
California prison confrontations--whether over gambling, drugs, sex or
debts--do end up being played out along racial lines. Race is the prison
fault line. Often, whites fit the prey profile more than blacks or Latinos
because they commonly lack street smarts, and a higher proportion are in
for nonviolent drug or white-collar crimes. "Race is a factor to the
extent that whatever race is predominant, they tend to victimize the
minority," Wright says. "It comes down to the pool of prey versus the pool
of predators, and whites aren't organized to protect each other and can be
more easily picked off one by one."
The international organization Human Rights Watch is less sanguine on the
subject. Its four-year study, called "No Escape" and released last year,
concluded that "white inmates are disproportionately targeted for abuse."
The report noncommittally cites two common theories for this: greater
violence in the black criminal subculture and payback for past racial
Women prisoners are also not immune from sexual attack, but it almost
always comes from male guards. The numbers are far fewer, but it is an
egregious offense that has received greater public attention. Some who
study male rape are critical of what they see as the lack of support from
women's rape groups in focusing attention on the problem. "It's just not
on the radar screen for anti-rape activists," Wright says. "Rape of men is
about where rape of women was 50 years ago in terms of how the public sees
it. So victims 'deal with it' and cover it up."
"Put it this way," Vincent Schiraldi says: "You're a women's group waging
war on rapists--rapists are men! It's tough to retool, psychologically and
organizationally, and expand your outreach. But this might change as the
problem becomes better known."
Prison authorities often fall back on the theory that most prison sex is
consensual--even though there are not enough homosexual men in prison to
support the number of incidents. Additionally, since the range of coercion
extends from brutal force to providing "protection" in exchange for
exclusive sex, it is difficult to sort things out. Presumably because of
that, and because of the fear of AIDS, California prisons officially
prohibit all sexual contact between prisoners.
Prisoners nearing the end of their sentences are especially at risk
because they fear having their term extended by fighting back. They just
want to be left alone to serve their time, but they rarely are. Still,
they keep their secrets to themselves. Jim Hogshire explains it by putting
himself in the mind of a victim: "OK, I've gotta do this [endure rape],
but I'm not telling anyone on the outside. And when I get out, I'll put it
"To them, the humiliation and hell of being punked-out is not as bad as
getting a lifetime sentence for killing someone or even being killed,"
Hogshire continues. "It's an awful choice, but it's the only choice some
guys get. And the choice is final. Many just kill themselves. Those who
live and are released reenter society every bit as [screwed up] as you
The public also has another reason to fear the mental state of prison rape
victims who have served their sentences. Many of them are carrying
sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. Prison officials are aware
that the combination of sexual assault and the rapid rise of these
diseases creates a lethal mix in prisons, but many choose to ignore the
problem, says Robert Dumond, a former mental health director with the
Massachusetts penal system. As a case in point, he says that virtually no
data has been collected nationally showing the extent of infection arising
from sexual assault, though "everyone knows it happens commonly."
Citing budget woes, the California Department of Corrections does not, as
a rule, give blood tests to new inmates. The department, therefore, has no
idea how many inmates have undetected HIV/AIDS or hepatitis, although an
earlier state study indicated that about one-third of all new convicts
have either hepatitis B or C. The corrections department says it does know
that 20,434 inmates have hepatitis B or C; 742 have HIV and another 582
have full-blown AIDS, up from 157 in 1999. All of these sick inmates are
housed in the general population. "We don't isolate because there is
little risk of infection except through blood or bodily fluids," a
Told of this practice, Dumond responds with a long, mirthless laugh.
"That's unbelievable," he says. "No, that's frightening." Dumond now
serves as a consultant to Stop Prisoner Rape, the organization co-founded
by Stephen Donaldson. Years after being raped while jailed for his war
protest, Donaldson was imprisoned again, this time for threatening medical
personnel who refused to treat a hand he had injured. Donaldson was raped
again--and caught the AIDS virus, which killed him after his release.
Is there anything that prisons can do day-to-day to diminish this
predation? Hogshire believes so. He says, with some hyperbole, "They could
stop this stuff tomorrow morning. If they sent perpetrators to Pelican Bay
[an ultra-maximum-security prison] where they could spend their days in
isolation, and if they also transferred their victims to other
institutions without the snitch rap in their files [so it could not be
learned later that they were informers], they would be scaring the hell
out of would-be rapists and, at the same time, telling their victims that
speaking up wouldn't mean a shiv in the back."
William Rigg believes that the number of incidents can be greatly reduced
by prompt administrative action when a rapist is identified. "Single cell
and walk alone," he says, meaning that contact with other inmates is
minimized or eliminated.
Craig Haney is a psychology professor at UC Santa Cruz who has studied
prison life. He says that one tool prison officials could use is conjugal
visits, which are now barred in California prisons for inmates serving
life sentences. He believes that such privileges would release pent-up
sexual pressures and allow officials give-and-take-away leverage with
State and federal laws also would help, although finding legislators to
champion the cause is nearly hopeless. "Prisoner-rights issues are dogs
when it comes to legislation," Schiraldi says. "Helping inmates is nuclear
Just ask Cal Skinner, the former Illinois legislator who pushed for prison
reforms. His opponent in the 2000 primary election accused him of being
more interested in convicts than in constituents, and he was defeated.
Skinner says his greatest frustration, however, was his inability to push
through effective laws aimed at stopping prison rape in Illinois. That
result is mirrored in other states where legislation also generally fails,
he says. "There's no lobbyist crusading against prison rape. For a
lawmaker, it's a mission without political reward."
Sacramento is silent on the issue. An official with the California
Senate's Public Safety Committee, who asked not to be identified, says
that he can't recall any bills introduced on the subject.
Congress is considering action against rape in the form of "The Prison
Rape Reduction Act," which has strong bipartisan support. Whether
President Bush signs it into law or not is still an open question. The
bill, which applies to both state and federal prisons, requires the
Justice Department to create a clearinghouse for statistics on prison rape
nationwide, ties federal funding for prisons to levels of rape
occurrences, provides a hotline for victims and creates a training program
for corrections officials. It's not exactly a Magna Carta on the subject,
but, as Schiraldi says, "It's a start."
When prison rapes occur, responsibility for prosecuting perpetrators falls
on local district attorneys. The problem is, Schiraldi says, that D.A.s
are often loath to file charges because those prosecutions could be seen
as coming to the defense of criminals. And in most jurisdictions, spending
local tax money to protect criminals, even if they're victims, becomes a
politically risky act.
Consequently, the main hope for convicts who believe they have been
wronged has always been the courts. However, because inmates often have to
serve as their own attorneys, the barriers are high, James Robertson says.
For an inmate to prove a violation of the 8th Amendment ban on cruel and
unusual punishment, for example, he must show that the prison staff
practiced deliberate indifference, which is exceedingly difficult.
Historically, inmates file lawsuits in federal courts because they
distrust state courts. However, the federal Prison Litigation Reform Act
of 1996 makes it much more difficult to prevail in federal court, often
leaving inmates feeling as if they have no place to go for legal
Forcing prisoners to seek shelter from "cruel and unusual punishment" at
the hands of other prisoners is itself an indictment of the American
justice system, Vincent Schiraldi says. Or, as the Russian writer Fyodor
Dostoevsky said more pointedly in "The House of the Dead," a novel based
upon the four years he served for sedition in Russia's abysmal 19th
century prisons: The degree to which a society is civilized can be judged
by entering its prisons.