JDI IN THE NEWS - 2003

Frank Green, Prison-Rape Issue Gets Closer Look, Times-Dispatch, July 10, 2003.

Not long after Keith DeBlasio entered the Federal Correctional Institution in Milan, Mich., the leader of a gang called the Vice Lords started making passes at him.

It was 1996. DeBlasio, who later served time in a Virginia prison, had been convicted of interstate trafficking of forged securities. He knew Milan was a tough place, but at 6 feet, 2 inches tall and 210 pounds, he didn't think he'd be sexually assaulted.

He was wrong. He was raped more than 30 times over two months by the knife-wielding gang leader who was backed up by gang members. DeBlasio's attacker was a violent, emotionally disturbed, repeat offender. And he also had AIDS.

DeBlasio became HIV-positive. He said he had always followed safe-sex practices previously and was sure he got infected in prison.

At the time, DeBlasio said, he felt he could not report the assaults. "I knew that I had nowhere to go, as far as the officials were concerned."

He said officers frequently tipped off his attacker about pending trouble. Also, DeBlasio said he faced retribution from gang members if he reported the assaults.

"I'm not muscular, but I have been in the system. I do know how to defend myself. That wasn't the issue. . . . It wasn't one on one, it was one on a whole bunch," he said.

The rapist slept in an upper bunk. DeBlasio remembers that as he lay in bed and his tormentor slept, "I'm thinking I could cut his throat and this could be over with."

Now 35, out of prison and on the board of directors of Virginia Citizens for Rehabilitation of Errants, an inmate-advocacy group, DeBlasio is pushing for passage of a bill in Congress that could help curb prison rape across the country.

Vincent Schiraldi, president of the Justice Policy Institute and past president of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, said an estimated 175,000 inmates are sexually assaulted each year across the country.

He calls prison rape one of the major untreated human-rights abuses in America today. He said research has found that almost one in four prisoners face sexual pressuring, attempted sexual assaults and rapes, and one in 10 will be raped.

According to Stop Prison Rape, when young inmates are held with older ones, they are assaulted five times more often than when they are held with other juveniles. Stop Prison Rape is a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization aimed at ending sexual violence against prisoners.

Since 1996, an average of about a dozen rapes have been reported each year in the Virginia prison system, according to the Department of Corrections. State prisons hold about 31,000 inmates.

Stop Prison Rape said experts blame the problem in large part on crowding and not enough prison staff. The inmate population across the country grew from 750,000 in 1985 to more than 2 million today.

Prisoner rape has been found to be a violation of the Eighth Amendment's ban against cruel and unusual punishment. Rape is a crime in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, and all but four states have laws against the sexual abuse of inmates by prison staff, according to Stop Prison Rape.

But the group contends that prison rape has been allowed to continue. It says the response to such assaults by authorities has often been indifferent and irresponsible.

"Reporting procedures, where they exist, are often ineffectual, and complaints by prisoners about sexual assault are routinely ignored by prison staff and government authorities. In general, corrections officers are not adequately trained to prevent sexual assault or to treat survivors after an attack," according to a statement by the group.

Lara Stemple, executive director of Stop Prison Rape, said the Prison Rape Reduction Act of 2003 (HR 1707) could be voted on in coming weeks. The bill is co-sponsored by Virginia Reps. Robert C. Scott, D-3rd, and Frank R. Wolf, R-10th.

The bill calls for the gathering of statistics about the issue, developing guidelines for states about how to address prisoner rape, creating a review panel to hold annual hearings and providing grants to states to combat the problem, she said.

DeBlasio said that beyond being HIV-positive, there have not been any serious residual effects. "Back then I was a basket case," he said. DeBlasio, who is gay, said he had always practiced safe sex in monogamous relationships.

"What really bothers me emotionally - where I feel the most violated - is not so much the assault, but that I am HIV-positive.

"He didn't just sexually assault me, he left me with something that I can't get rid of."