Donna Lamb, Council Hearing Addresses Male Sexual Assault in City's Jails, Greenwich Village Gazette, November 21, 2003.
Now prevalent is male
inmate-on-inmate sexual assault in New York City jails? Are they as
unusual as Department of Correction (DOC) officials claim, or grossly
underreported as activists believe? What can be done to stop jail rape
These were the serious questions addressed at a November 13th hearing held
by the City Council's Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Services,
chaired by Council Member Yvette Clarke.
Clarke pointed out that like every person incarcerated anywhere for
whatever reason, the people detained in New York City jails deserve to be
protected from assault until they are returned to their wives, mothers and
children. Most certainly they ought to be safeguarded from sexual assaults
that could give them AIDS, hepatitis and other highly communicable
diseases that can disable and kill them, and also be carried back to the
community. Nearly 70% of the approximately 100,000 people held in the
city's jails each year aren't even convicted of a crime, and those who are
convicted have been sentenced to less than a year. "Not only for the good
of inmates, but for the good of everyone, it's our duty and in our
interest to learn more about this problem and to take measures to stop
it," Clarke stated.
Although independent studies indicate that rape is endemic in the nation's
prisons and that sexual assaults are vastly underreported both behind the
walls and in society at large, the DOC would have us believe that is not
the case here. In the 5-year period between 1998 and 2002, there were only
27 reported allegations of inmate-on-inmate rape in the city jails. Only 4
were substantiated and led to arrests. This implies a less than 0.001%
incidence of sexual assault. Given that some estimates of the frequency of
sexual assault in prisons are in the 20% range, it would seem that
inmate-on-inmate sexual assaults in the city jails are disturbingly
At the hearing, DOC Commissioner Martin Horn and Sidney Schwartzbaum,
President of the Assistant Deputy Wardens - Deputy Wardens Association,
spoke as though everything is pretty much under control in the city jails,
and any further discussion of this issue is unnecessary. Certainly, a few
unfortunate people get raped - just as they do by high school football
teams - but there is a highly effective system in place to prevent these
incidents from occurring and to deal with them when they do. As
Commissioner Horn declared, "The DOC has zero tolerance for all violence,
including sexual assault. We take it seriously when it happens. All
allegations are aggressively investigated and perpetrators are arrested
and prosecuted." Both men gave a thorough run down on what they said were
the exact procedures followed.
However a more complex picture emerged through the powerful and
illuminating testimony of T.J. Parsell, a representative of Stop Prison
Rape who is, himself, a survivor of prison rape, and Jamie Fellner,
Director of the US Program at Human Rights Watch (HRW).
First of all, it became clear that because this subject has been
essentially taboo, no reliable data exists to show how common rape and
sexual coercion are or are not in the city jails. We know there are very
few incidents reported, but we don't know why. Is it because incidents
are, in fact, rare, or because something else is going on?
It was also evident that trying to assess how widespread rape is based on
how often it is reported vastly underestimates the problem, and that there
is a desperate need for another more effective method of measuring it.
It became apparent, too, that the problem isn't so much what is done after
a rape is reported, but what can be done so inmates don't feel they may be
endangering their safety if they report it. As long as these assaults go
unreported, there's no way of knowing how prevalent they are, under what
circumstances they occur, or how they can be stopped and the perpetrators
Very courageously, Parsell told the heartrending story of his own
experience while incarcerated in Michigan. "My rape, many would have said,
was inevitable, given my size, my looks and my inability to defend
myself," he stated. "I was 17 years old and weighed 158 pounds. I was
housed with inmates 15 and 20 years older than me. I didn't last 24 hours
inside general population."
When asked by Council Member Tracy Boyland if he had reported it, Parsell
explained that he'd been too frightened to do so because he didn't believe
he'd be protected. "I think that's at the very root of the problem," he
commented. "Inmates don't feel safe coming forward because if you were to
do that, you risk being killed."
He also commented on Commissioner Horn's statement that in 2003,
allegations of rape increased considerably. There were 19 reported, but
only one of them had been substantiated. He said that if he were an inmate
being sexually assaulted and heard those numbers, there's no way he'd come
forward because he'd feel the odds were lousy - only a one in 19 shot that
his complaint would be taken seriously or that he would be protected after
he'd raised the allegation.
Parsell also spelled it out that once you've been raped - "turned out" as
it's called - it's irrevocable. You can never get your manhood back once
it's been taken. Though it was 25 years ago that he was incarcerated, if
he were to find himself back in A Michigan jail, "I guarantee there would
still be somebody there who would remember me, and I would still carry
Jamie Fellner added that this stigma doesn't just mean you carry a label.
It means you're constantly at risk of being re-victimized again and again.
The only safety is in becoming a real tough guy's slave. You are "owned"
by him, and he protects you.
She went on to say that the prevalence of rape in prison is not simply a
problem of individual inmate conduct; it's a consequence of a certain kind
of prison environment and of the attitude and conduct of certain prison
officials. Rape is part and parcel with a culture of violence that becomes
rampant in facilities where it isn't made clear from the top down, that
all violence - by the staff or inmates - is completely unacceptable, and
that people will be held accountable for permitting violence to occur.
"There is not a rape victim HRW spoke to who didn't refer to the
indifference or the callousness or the complicity of staff," she said
emphatically. "Where there are high incidents of rape it's because
prevention measures are meager and effective punishment is rare."
Among the many other invaluable points both Fellner and Parsell made was
that often inmates refrain from reporting their rapists because they don't
want to be put into protective custody (PC). In most facilities, going
into PC means you're a snitch, which, in the prison code, is life
endangering. When you come out of PC you're in even bigger trouble than
before because not only are you still vulnerable to rape, but to
retribution for snitching as well.
They also followed up on a statement Commissioner Horn made which implied
that the allegations of rape lodged by mentally ill inmates are often
nothing more than products of their delusions. Fellner stated that HRW had
found that these inmates usually fall within the category of people most
inclined to be victimized and assaulted; therefore, their allegations
should be taken not as delusions, but as a warning that there's a real
T.J. Parsell pointed out, too, that unlike other inmates who are quite
aware of the risks associated with coming forward, a mentally ill person
probably doesn't fully understand the convict code, and that's why they
are more forthcoming.
Fellner also made some concrete suggestions for the City Council. The
first one was that they work with the DOC on a confidential survey to be
given directly to all inmates. The second was to have an independent
evaluation of how well the city is doing in protecting its inmates from
sexual and other assaults, and to report publicly on the findings. "All
correctional systems benefit from periodic external reviews," she said.
Council Member Clarke intends to hold additional hearings looking into
other aspects of rape and sexual coercion in New York's correctional
system, including those committed by staff and specifically against women.