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 altogether?

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 underreported.

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 punished.

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 that stigma."

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 problem.

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.