Jonathan Kaplan, Liberals, Conservatives Jointly Target Prison Rape, The Hill, July 23, 2003.

When Tom Cahill was thrown in jail for civil disobedience in 1968, he was placed in an area organized for what was called a "turning out party."

Cahill, now a 66-year-old peace activist, told The Hill, "[The rape] happened in the first 24 hours, then suddenly it stopped."

Prison rape, says the Justice Policy Institute's president Vincent Schiraldi, is "a weird serious problem that society has come to joke about. Part of the reason is that rage at criminals exploded during the 1990s. But good-thinking liberals and conservatives feel that you go to prison as punishment, not for punishment.  

Prisoner rape has been used in the past as a tool by prison officials to control inmate populations and by prisoners to inflict violence and control of other inmates, legal experts reported.

Now Congress is on the verge of passing legislation intended to aid victims of rape in prisons, who lack a powerful pressure group and campaign contributions.

An eclectic alliance of human rights, legal advocacy, Jewish reform, and evangelical Christian organizations have pooled their efforts to curb prison rape, an oft-overlooked crime.

The Senate passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 by unanimous consent on Monday. The bill requires the Justice Department to collect statistics on the prevalence of prison rape and allocate $40 million to state and local programs to help stop it.

The House will consider identical legislation tomorrow on its suspension calendar; a two-thirds vote is required for the bill to pass without debate.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who sponsored the bill in the House, credits Michael Horowitz, an analyst at the Hudson Institute, for the bill's likely passage. Horowitz, a former Reagan administration official, had worked to pass legislation cracking down on religious persecution and sexual trafficking by building unusual coalitions.

He told The Hill he decided to combat prison rape while having lunch a couple of years ago with Linda Chavez, a conservative activist. "She said 'I have always thought what is so outrageous is that prison rape has never been effectively dealt with,'" Horowitz recalled.

Horowitz began reaching out to liberals and conservatives, such as Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship Ministries, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and mental health experts.

For the past two years, the group drafted several versions of the bill and eventually sought the support of members of Congress.

Horowitz first approached Wolf, who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce-State-Justice and the Judiciary.

Wolf said he had been involved in a volunteer group started by a former Washington Redskins running back, "Man to Man," in which he mentored and befriended prisoners at the now-closed Lorton Prison in Chantilly, Va.

As a subcommittee chair with interest in the moral and legal problems posed by prison rape, Wolf decided to get involved.

The group also approached Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), a key member on the House Judiciary Committee. Scott said he favored the bill because it would reduce recidivism rates and that men released from prison would be less prone to violence.

While Horowitz lined up support in the House, he needed equal support in the Senate. He and John Kaneb, a Massachusetts GOP fundraiser who bankrolled a Human Rights Watch study of prison rape, approached Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and his top legal aide, Robin Toone, a Yale Law School graduate who has authored a book on prisoners' rights.

Kennedy, who has a longtime interest in prison reform, found a Republican co-sponsor when Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) expressed interest in the legislation. He and Kennedy negotiated legislation for three months, which they then sent to Wolf and Scott to review, aides familiar with the process said.

Initially reticent for "artificial reasons," according to Wolf, the Justice Department eventually came to support the bill.

Although the bill had support from a broad range of groups, supporters still faced two problems.

First, such groups as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) wanted to review and amend portions of the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996, which limited inmates' abilities to initiate legal challenges.

"Less is more," said Horowitz: "By just focusing on the hardcore evil, you can generate real support and powerful coalitions."

Second, the Council on State Governments (CSG) and the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA) had opposed the initial bill. They feared states would lose funding and that the Justice Department would collect data inaccurately, said A.T. Wall, director of the Rhode Island Department of Corrections.

"We believe our core concerns have been addressed," Wall said.

Horowitz said he will have succeeded "when it is no easier to make jokes about rape of prisoners than it is to make jokes about the rape of women."