Scott Canon, Progress Lags Despite New Legislation to Stop Prison Rape, The Kansas City Star, March 22, 2004.

"Part of this problem has been a lack of will to address it. The corrections industry and larger society just see this as a part of the landscape that's always going to be there."

Lara Stemple, executive director of Stop Prisoner Rape

By the standards of his fellow inmates, Rodney Hulin had been "turned out" - raped once and thus tagged as easy pickings for any thug with an urge.

A history of mental illness, 5 feet 2 inches tall, 125 pounds, 17 years old and - for tossing a Molotov cocktail that set a neighbor's fence on fire - locked in a Texas prison with adults, he practically defined prison prey.

"I have been sexually and physically assaulted several times, by several inmates," he said in a 1995 grievance letter to prison officials. Physical exams confirmed rape. "I am afraid to go to sleep, to shower, and just about everything else."

Eventually, he hanged himself with a torn bed sheet and died after months in a coma.

The stuff of don't-pick-up-the-soap jokes by those who fancy themselves streetwise, prison rape is a raw reality. It figures prominently in the twisted social standing of a cellblock, leaves victims brutalized and triggers other forms of violence.

It also accelerates the spread of HIV and hepatitis among a population - 2.2 million people locked up in 8,700 prisons, jails and juvenile detention centers - whose health care falls largely to taxpayers.

A lobbying effort supported by conservatives and liberals led to passage last year of a law that ordered formation of a commission, a first-every study of the problem and national guidelines to stop prison rape. Yet seven months later, vacancies remain on the Prison Rape Reduction Commission. Only when that panel convenes will the law start to matter.

Even then, the commissioners need to sort out disagreements already building about how best to measure the scope and shape of the problem.

Then comes the grittier task of fixing it.

Some tactics for preventing prison rape already are known. They range from the relatively inexpensive- a more careful sorting of predator from prey - to the pricier choices of hiring more guards and building modern jails and prisons.

As America's prisons grow more crowded - the federal prison population doubled in the last 10 years to more than 139,000, Kansas is up about 50 percent to more than 9,000, and Missouri's inmate numbers rose more than 40 percent to almost 30,000 - the problem gets tougher.

Key to any solution, experts say, is simple determination.

"Any time you lock people up together, somebody's going to get raped," said Melvin Coonce, who worked as a corrections officer and investigator at the Missouri State Penitentiary off and on from 1975 to 1992.

"The more you can watch them, the less they can get away with."

Joe Amrine's quarter-century in Missouri prisons ended last year. He saw improvements - including greater sensitivity by prison officials and a growing disapproval of the rape of inmates. Still, rape persisted. He recalls the lowly status of "punks" - the young and naïve beaten into sexual submission.

"Once it's known you're a punk, no doubt you'd be a punk again," Amrine said. "It's gonna be tough for you, real tough." Amrine recently was released after evidence against him was discredited.

Amrine's inmate days inside the Jefferson City prison overlapped with Coonce's service as a corrections officer. Amrine guesses that rapes happened two or three times a day there in the 1970s, and maybe half as often today. Coonce believes it happened once or twice a week.

State prisons record far fewer rapes. Missouri inmates told of six sexual assaults in 2003. Kansas inmates reported four "attempted or completed" sexual assaults in the last three months. The new federal law will for the first time standardize reporting.

A handful of academic studies of Midwestern prisons estimate 10-12 percent of those locked up eventually fall victim to forced rape. Include coerced sex, and that number doubles.

The American Correctional Association estimates no more than 1 percent of inmates are raped annually. A Justice Department statistician - emphasizing reliable numbers do not exist - estimates that 2 to 5 percent of inmates nationally suffer at least one form of sexual assault in a year.

"How much you find depends on how you ask," said Allen J. Beck, the chief of corrections statistics for Bureau of Justice Statistics. He's designing an entirely new way of asking - matching inmates with audio computer programs so even the illiterate can respond in private to surveys.

Unusual allies

Corrections officials say prison rape is far less common in reality than many people imagine. Prisoner advocates see that assessment as denial.

"Part of this problem has been a lack of will to address it," said Lara Stemple, executive director of Stop Prisoner Rape. "The corrections industry and larger society just see this as a part of the landscape that's always going to be there."

Stop Prisoner Rape formed in 1980, existing primarily as a far-flung support group and lonely chronicler. The group's prisoner-to-prisoner advice, for example, suggests fashioning condoms from bread bags and discusses the unpleasant option of "hooking up" with one powerful, protective prisoner to escape gang rapes.

"Most veteran guards and administrators are realistic enough to recognize that protective pairing minimizes the violence in the joint," reads the group's Web site. "So they won't press the protective pair very hard, often not at all."

In 2001 the group landed a few small grants and began pressing the issue in Washington. Meantime, the conservative Hudson Institute gathered a broad coalition shaped earlier to curb the trafficking of women and children in Africa. Senior Hudson fellow Michael Horowitz challenged the alliance to tackle prison rape.

"Some of the people wanted to close down half the prisons," he said. "Some wanted to build twice as many."

In the end, the Prison Rape Elimination Act drew backing from 32 groups ranging from the National Association of Evangelicals, National Council of La Raza, Amnesty International, Penal Reform International and the Rev. James Dobson's Focus on the Family.

"This was a moral statement from left to right that in American prisons that people should not be subjected to rape," said Pat Nolan of Prison Fellowship Ministries, the group formed by Watergate conspirator Charles Colson.

Rodney Hulin's parents, who reached a $200,000-plus settlement with Texas prison officials over their son's death, testified for the legislation, and it passed Congress easily last summer. President Bush made it law in September.

Horowitz said the bill passed by avoiding "easy Washington ideological solutions" such as grand spending on new prisons. Corrections officials say that lack of new resources may be the law's weakness.

"This is not going to be a quick fix," said Charles Kehoe, president of the American Correctional Association.

He worries that some prisons will be unfairly tagged as most dangerous by surveys reviewed long after improvements are made.

Everyone who studies the issue suggests prison administrators are increasingly sensitive and savvy to rape, but the role of jailers is a complicated one.

Ted Conover worked for 10 months as a corrections officer in New York's maximum-security Sing Sing prison before writing about his experience in Newjack. He said guards took pride in protecting prisoners, and he found rape rare at Sing Sing.

Some researchers, however, speculate that guards at times turn a blind eye to attacks, or facilitate them, to fortify the position of a powerful inmate whom they might turn to later to keep order. The scant research suggests about half of assaults on women inmates involve prison staff.

Prison workers are suspected in only the rarest of cases involving men.

Prisoners who sue a prison win only when they show "deliberate indifference" - a standard from a 1994 case that classified the tolerance of rape as cruel and unusual punishment but holds prison officials accountable only for attacks they know about.

Wrote Human Rights Watch: "Prison officials have good reason to want to remain unaware of it."

Uncounted crimes

Asked about the inadequacy of research into prison rape, Kehoe emphasized how difficult it is to get honest answers. Victims are ashamed, intimidated. Inmates can use surveys as ways to harass their keepers, he said.

Cindy Struckman-Johnson, a social researcher and one of the early appointees to the federal prison rape prevention commission, took heat from Nebraska prison officials after a mid-1990s study she conducted found rape more common than they believed. But follow-up research published in 2000 showed roughly similar results by looking at five other unnamed Midwest prison systems.

The Nebraska study found that about one-fourth of the incidents were gang rapes. When asked to rate the trauma on a scale of from 1 to 7, many inmates extended the seven-point scales "by adding numbers, stars and symbols to express a higher degree of upset." Only half told anyone about the rapes; barely a third told prison officials.

In short, Struckman-Johnson found about one in 10 was forcibly raped and about 1 in four was coerced into sex - through everything from bribes of alcohol to threats of violence. Christopher Hensley, the author of Prison Sex: Practice and Policy, says prison changes the context of sex.

"Even what people would assume was consensual sex, in prison it is coercive sex," said Hensley, a professor at Morehead State University in Kentucky.

Struckman-Johnson asked inmates what might help. Some suggested conjugal visits. But many confirmed ideas that administrators have been moving toward in recent years - better screening inmates to identify who is at risk, making rape a priority so guards patrol their areas vigilantly and designing facilities to eliminate hiding places.

"Screening's very, very cheap," Struckman-Johnson said. "The other stuff isn't."

Part of the solution is about attitude, experts say. And they see changes.

The corrections profession cares more. Inmates say their own culture is less accepting of the brutalization. And some people point to the wide-ranging group that pushed through the federal law as evidence of public attitudes abandoning the idea that somehow prison rape is a just reward for criminals.

"You'll still see the jokes on late-night TV," said Wendy Patten of Human Rights Watch. "When people talk seriously, it's different. They say it's something we have an obligation to protect people against."