JDI IN THE NEWS - 2003

John Guthrie, Biography of a Prison Punk, The Mass Media, October 9, 2003.

On the 2nd of October in Wheatley, freelance writer and UMB English faculty member Tracey Slater presented a reading from her book-in-progress, Biography of a Prison Punk. Slater read from her finely wrought and at times brutally graphic work to a hushed audience. The book relates the story of Stephen Donaldson, valedictorian of his high school class, Navy vet, and a graduate of Columbia University who was arrested for trespassing at a Quaker prayer group on the White House lawn in protest of the bombing of Cambodia in the summer of 1973. Placed in the D.C. jail, he refused to pay the ten-dollar bail for his release for reasons of conscience.

The guard captain at the jail retaliated by having Donaldson transferred to the portion of the jail reserved for the most violent and intractable prisoners. There, a man known only as "Baseball Bat" approached him and urged him to come to a cell where some prisoners wanted "to talk to [him] about his politics." Once there, the prisoners grabbed the unsuspecting Donaldson, lifted his body, and repeatedly rammed his head against the metal rail of the top bunk. He was then ordered to perform fellatio on his abusers. Her refused, but was threatened with death and beaten further until he complied. He was then anally raped, and in the ensuing two days was sexually assaulted 60 times. He underwent rectal surgery following his release from jail. Though Donaldson's gang rape occurred in 1973, his story delineates a problem that persists to the present time.

During the question-and-answer session following her reading, Slater circulated a copy of a flyer from which a photo of Donaldson, youthful, hopeful, and handsome, peers out at the world. "I soon learned," Donaldson was to write, "that victims of prison rape were, like me, usually the youngest, the smallest, the nonviolent, the first-timers and those charged with less serious crimes."

Slater pointed out that most men who are raped in prison are reluctant to report the crime because of their humiliation and a realization that prison authorities often don't wish to hear about it. Due to under-reporting, definitive statistics on the current incidence of prison rape are hard to come by, but typical estimates run in the vicinity of 300,000 per year.

However, once freed, Donaldson not only reported his rape, but also held a press conference to publicize his brutalization. He found further redemption in the writing of his experience and in founding the organization Stop Prison Rape. SPR is described as "an organization committed to fighting sexual violence against men, women, and children in all form of detention." Its founder was to correspond and counsel with hundreds of other men who had been "turned out" - raped and sexually subjugated - while imprisoned. Also, he wrote a pamphlet on surviving in prison titled, "Hooking Up: Protective Pairing for Punks." This how-to-do-it manual describes the selecting of a strong prisoner who, in return for sexual favors, protects the prisoner from other would-be sexual assailants. The sex slave in this arrangement is known as a "punk." Donaldson characterized this arrangement as "survival driven sex...a degrading necessity of prison life."

After his imprisonment, Donaldson also developed an alter ego, a persona known, ironically enough, as "Donnie the Punk." Under this byline, Donaldson reported on punk-rock concerts and related events.

The "punk," Slater noted, may come to love his protector. To comprehend this, she continued, one must understand the "Stockholm Syndrome," a relationship where persons held captive or in sexual subjugation increasingly identify with their captors and their captor's interests.

Despite the positive impact Donaldson's writings had on victims of sexual violence following his ordeal, the wounds he had suffered to his person-hood, to his sense of self, never truly healed. He became fearful around groups of men. He experienced prolonged episodes of uncontrollable trembling. He developed panic attacks, and eventually had paranoid episodes with suicidal ideation. He was to return to prison multiple times during the remainder of his life.

The rape of males, in prison or out, has often been a taboo subject, Slater noted. Her book, then, will cast a spotlight on a regrettable and usually hidden aspect of life in our times. It should also serve as a powerful reminder that rape is not just a woman's issue.

Stephen Donaldson contracted AIDS in his initial prison ordeal. Though the organization he founded, Stop Prison Rape, lives on, he died from complications of AIDS in 1996. He was 49 years old.