Rhonda Bodfield Bloom, Invisible Assault: In the Battles for Dominance Behind Prison Walls, Rape is a Powerful Weapon and Daily Fact of Life, Arizona Daily Star, January 25, 2004.

Prison rape is often hidden behind an iron curtain of silence.

It lies somewhere between taboo and a bad punch line.

Seantain Cook, a 23-year-old Phoenix man, went to prison five years ago for stealing cars and a bicycle. Not good choices.

But the sentence didn't say anything about sexual assault.

No one knows how many inmates like Cook are in prison across the nation.

There's a stigma to snitching and a stigma to being a "punk" or a "queen." There's also the shame.

The stigma will remain, but it might soon be easier to get answers. New federal legislation, signed last year, may shed light on what until now has been an invisible problem.

Seantain Cook was 18 years old when he landed in prison for stealing cars in Phoenix.

He got out at 21, got a bed at a homeless shelter, got a full-time job and enrolled in night school to become a recording engineer.

Then temptation knocked. One night, after doing crystal meth, he got into an accident. Terrified he'd be sent back to prison for violating parole, he stole a bicycle from a nearby home to flee the scene.

His mother, a born-again Christian in Chandler, asked the court for mercy, saying that when she was a young, single mother, she neglected her son to go out drinking. Child protective workers ultimately took him from her.

Cook said he wasn't looking to excuse his actions, but said he thought he was strong enough to say no to the drugs. "They say only the strong survive in prison," he wrote to the judge. "I just hope that I am strong enough again."

Cook knew what to expect. He isn't a violent offender. And - at a slight 5 feet 4 inches and 130 pounds - he's not a tough one.

The first time he went to prison, he tried to shave his head to fit in with other inmates, he said, but it didn't work. Scared, he tried to keep to himself, but that didn't work either.

"As soon as I stepped off the bus, there was no saving me," he said.

A new law, combined with a prison policy change, may unite to help save the Cooks of the prison system from sexual assault behind bars.

President Bush in September signed into law the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which for the first time orders the federal government to analyze the frequency and effects of prison rape in systems across the country. The act created the National Prison Rape Reduction Commission, which will hold annual hearings, report findings to Congress and provide money to train correctional officers on prevention strategies.

In an unusual coalition, civil liberties groups and faith-based groups both pushed for its passage. It's not often that conservative talk show host Michael Savage and the American Civil Liberties Union agree on something, but they do on this topic.

Rape isn't just about physical violence. It carries with it the risk of emotional trauma and long-term chronic illness through sexually transmitted diseases.

Psychiatrist and expert witness Terry Kupers wrote an essay in the anthology "Prison Masculinities" about how men in prison are forced to perpetuate violence, or have violence turned on them. And with an estimated 11.5 million people moving through the justice system every year, that's not a mind-set you want to come back to your community.

The fact that rape happens isn't really up for debate. Even so, it is nearly invisible in official prison statistics, despite being a staple in most Hollywood films depicting life behind bars.

Jokes about it are almost inescapable. The makers of the 7 Up soft drink yanked a television ad two years ago after civil rights groups complained that it trivialized a serious problem in prisons. The commercial showed the comedian Godfrey handing out soda to prisoners and, when he accidentally drops a can, commenting, "I'm not picking that up."

Later, he says the drink is a great way to make friends, but he looks uncomfortable while a large cellmate begins to hug him.

"I can tell you that whenever a mother calls me whose son has been sentenced to prison, the first question she inevitably asks is, 'What can I tell him so he can keep himself safe?" said Donna Hamm, of the advocacy group Middle Ground Prison Reform. For the very weak, or the very young, or for homosexuals or females, coerced sexual activity is a very real concern, she said.

U.S. Department of Justice statistics showed more than 2 million Americans in prison or jail in December 2002. In Arizona, there are more than 31,000 in prison. Almost 70 percent are under age 40, with about 20 percent 24 or younger.

Solid numbers on how many face sexual assault are hard to come by. Inmates are often reluctant to tell prison officials about abuse because of the stigma or because they don't want to be labeled a snitch. Sometimes, staffers look the other way or chalk it up to "lovers' quarrels," particularly if the victim is homosexual.

A handful of academic reports going back 24 years found rape rates of anywhere from 1 percent in an Oklahoma facility to as high as 14 percent in a California sample. A study by University of South Dakota researchers, published in Prison Journal 2000, found as many as 20 percent of inmates in seven Midwestern facilities reported some level of sexual coercion.

The Los Angeles-based Stop Prisoner Rape compiles "survivor resource guides" to point prison victims to legal and mental services in 10 states. Those states were picked based on the number of anecdotal reports of sexual assault that the office receives. Lara Stemple, the organization's executive director, said Arizona is among those 10 states.

But Bill Gaspar, warden of the Lewis state prison complex south of Buckeye who has spent 30 years working in prisons, said the research numbers sound overblown. He described the corrections numbers, however, as "sketchy." Gaspar says the department's criminal investigations unit, which investigates any alleged crime that happens in the statewide prison system, found that there were six alleged cases of sexual assault in 2002 and another 10 in 2003. The most common outcome, he said, is that inmates decline to assist in prosecution.

Arizona inmates may be better off than those in some parts of the country, though. About eight years ago, after inmates seeking protective custody sued the state Department of Corrections, the department agreed to a settlement that included a protective segregation plan. "The ultimate bottom line is that inmates who are at risk ought to be kept safe," said Phoenix attorney Larry Hammond, who represented the inmates.

Generally, inmates are put in protective segregation or moved to another facility, with counseling about ways to avoid becoming a sexual target. "There is certainly a pecking order in this prison system, as there is in every prison in this country," Hammond said. "I can't tell you the system is broken. I can't say it works perfectly, but I also can't say DOC has turned a blind eye to inmates who are victims of assaultive behavior."

Although Cook is in a segregated unit now, he contends it wasn't soon enough.

Shortly after his arrival, he said, he found himself the sexual property of another inmate. At first, he recalled, he was afraid of telling prison officials about it. "Being a snitch is like the big no-no in prison," said Cook.

He applied for protection, but officials generally handled it by transferring him to another facility, where the whole process would start all over again. Eventually, he said, he became the property of a kitchen worker with a heroin habit, who paid off his drug debts by forcing Cook to perform acts with other inmates.

Currently, he's in a cell by himself, which is just fine with him after living in what he describes as a "constant state of fear."

Warden Gaspar acknowledged the risk involved with inmates who are perceived as snitches and said that every day there is an opportunity for assaults to happen. Inmates are exposed to more people - and, consequently, potentially more predators - in a dormitory setting, but there are also more witnesses, which may keep some impulses in check, he said. Living in a cell cuts down on contact with other inmates, but it won't help if a cellmate is determined to attack.

But, Gaspar said, all inmates, including openly homosexual ones, can be safe on the yard.

"All inmates face a challenge when they come to prison," Gaspar said. "They're coming to an environment where they have to learn how to carry themselves so that they don't present as victims or in some way call attention to themselves." They have to learn to be assertive, he said.

Gaspar said the Department of Corrections has a committee working to refine the data collection system to comply with the Rape Elimination Act and is awaiting further guidelines from the federal government.

Advocates for inmates say change can't happen fast enough.

"No one deserves to be raped," Stemple, of Stop Prison Rape, said. "It's never part of the punishment, and that's not what we mean when we talk about justice."

Stemple said victims are among the more sympathetic of prisoners, the first-time offenders who are more timid and lack street smarts. Even so, she said, it's been difficult to focus national attention on the plight of prisoners.

There was no organized opposition to the congressional Prison Rape Elimination bill; the real challenge was overcoming apathy.

"The fact of the matter is that prison is really a revolving door. These people do come back into the community, and they come back with problems that are really severe," Stemple said.

There's more than psychological turmoil at stake. The Bureau of Justice Statistics in 1999 reported that the overall rate of confirmed AIDS cases among the nation's prison population was five times the rate of the general U.S. population, with roughly 2.1 percent of male inmates known to be HIV positive. Other sexually transmitted diseases, like hepatitis, are also prevalent, and because rape is typically physically violent, leaving the victim susceptible to tearing, disease transmission is a real possibility.

Keith DeBlasio was 28 years old when he entered federal prison in 1996 for interstate trafficking of forged securities. He's a big guy, about 6 feet 2, so he wasn't concerned about physical assault. He was more concerned about the open toilet facilities, not really joking when he said he didn't eat for two weeks because he was so horrified at the loss of privacy.

He soon had more to worry about when he became the target of a sexual predator and gang leader at the minimum-security facility in Michigan. He said he saw the man and his gang beat another prisoner into submission. Even though he voiced concerns to prison officials, he said, the man was moved into his dormitory and picked a bunk above his. He didn't fight when the attack came, he said, because he knew he couldn't get protection. He lost count of the number of assaults that followed.

"I remember waking up and thinking, 'I could cut his throat and this would all be over with.' That feeling bothered me."  

The federal system tests inmates for HIV infection. DeBlasio tested negative when he went to prison. By the time he left in 2001, he was infected with HIV.

"In my case, I wasn't sentenced to a life sentence, but I've gotten one," DeBlasio said. "The biggest part that bothers me is waking up in the middle of the night sick because of the illness, and realizing it's something that will never go away."

DeBlasio helped push the Prison Rape Elimination legislation through Congress, sharing his story with a number of Congress members. "When you're dealing with someone coming into your office who is more educated and affluent, saying, 'I was in on a white-collar securities offense and this is what happened to me,' it hits home a lot more, I think," he said.

He calls the legislation an important first step. "I think it's going to make a great deal of difference because it's bringing the situation out of the closet."

Meanwhile, Cook's term is up in 2005.

Cook said he's been on suicide watch a couple of times and is just now getting psychological treatment. "Sometimes I get so depressed, I just cry for no reason. I get anxiety attacks and start getting nauseous. I have nightmares at night."

He's afraid to make friends, he said, because he's suspicious now of their intent.

"Basically, they can just leave me in the hole because I can't function on the yard."