JDI IN THE NEWS - 2004

Cyd Zeigler Jr., Life Behind Bars: Peter Bacanovic's Sentence Put the Spotlight on Gay Prisoners, New York Blade News, May 14, 2004.

We all have heard the remarks about sex between boys at private boarding schools: "I'm not gay, I just went to Exeter."

While Martha Stewart's stock broker and co-defendant had a more modest upbringing than that, Peter Bacanovic may soon witness another place where "situational homosexuality" runs rampant: the penal system.

Bacanovic was convicted on March 5 on four counts of obstructing justice and lying to investigators. While his sentencing is not until June 17, Bacanovic faces up to 20 years in Federal prison.

The life he faces in prison is a far cry from the Upper East Side. Prison life in this country is dominated by the denial of individual rights and unreported abuse. All too often, that abuse is sexual in nature.

"If you're gay and you go in there, you have to hook up or lock up," said T.J. Parsell, a former inmate who spent his late teens in a Michigan state prison.

He should know.

At the age of 17, Parsell was convicted of robbing a Photomat with a toy gun. His first day in prison, he was invited to a gathering of several inmates. There, they gave him a drink that was spiked with Thorazine (a strong depressant used in severe psychiatric cases) stolen from a mentally ill inmate. Once he was in a "grey out," three of the men gang raped him.

The three men, and a fourth man who stopped the rape, then flipped a coin to see who got to take Parsell permanently.

Parsell said that the rape branded him, from his first day, as a "bitch" in the entire jail system (word travels fast) and that, no matter what jail he ended up in, he was forced to quickly find a "man" to take care of him.

Survival of the fittest

"If your manhood is taken, it's irrevocable," he said.

Now living in New York and writing a book about his experiences, Parsell said he has spent a small fortune on therapists trying to deal with his imprisoned past 20 years ago.

Parsell's story is all too common to Stanley Richards, deputy executive director of Fortune Society, an organization that has been working to improve prison conditions and protect the rights of prisoners in New York City since 1967.

Richards, who served four-and-a-half years in prison for robbery until 1991, agreed with Parsell that "sex in prison is a very real issue. Any time you put a bunch of men in an environment away from society, they're going to do it."

He said that the prison system, as presently designed, is a game of survival of the fittest.

"There's a reality that folks have to face that prison is a cold place, it's a hard place, it's a pretty dangerous place. Prisons are places where people can get hurt," Richards said.

Parsell said that he was helpless to defend himself against the forced sex in prison as he fit almost the entire checklist inmates use to decide if they're going to turn a new prisoner into a "bitch."

"I was young and attractive, and they were going to turn me out one way or another," he said. "Turning out" is the term that describes forcing a new inmate to take a submissive role in his relationship with another inmate.

According to Parsell, inmates target men who are young and attractive, who are not particularly street-smart and who are non-violent offenders. These are the men who are the least likely to put up a successful fight for dominance.

Men are also treated differently depending on their race.

"If a young black male goes in there, they're often looked after, unless they're gay. But a younger white guy is in trouble if he doesn't make some friends quickly," Parsell said. "Gays of any race are attacked almost immediately."

That immediate attack forces gay men in prison to, as Parsell said, hook up or lock up: either find a man to have a sexual relationship with who will take care of you, or request solitary confinement. If you're gay and you don't do one of those two things, prison will likely be a long road of rapes and fights.

Some men are able to avoid this dilemma. They are mostly black, very masculine and have friends on the inside already.

Moves to stop prison rape

Peter Bacanovic is white, handsome, probably has no connections to a gang, and is convicted of a non-violent crime. And he is a well-known out-gay man.

Stephen Donaldson was incarcerated in Washington D.C. He was well known for being a gay advocate.

He had been the founder of the world's first gay student organization (at Columbia University) and was the first sailor to fight discharge from the U.S. Navy for "homosexual behavior." He had been arrested for trespassing at the White House during a peaceful Quaker protest against the bombing of Cambodia in 1973.

While in a cellblock with violent offenders, Donaldson was gang-raped approximately 60 times in a two-day period. Upon his release, he underwent rectal surgery at a Veteran's Administration hospital.

Donaldson was the first person to speak out about rape in prison. His story sparked a national outcry from prisoner-rights advocates.

Donaldson's experience led him to join Stop Prisoner Rape, an advocacy group that seeks to end sexual violence committed against men, women, and youth in all forms of detention. The group's greatest victory in recent years was the passing of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which President George Bush signed into law last year.

According to Stop Prisoner Rape, one in five inmates is sexually assaulted during his incarceration. That percentage more than doubles for gay inmates, 41 percent of whom report being sexually assaulted; that number, of course, is just the number that were willing to report an attack.

"Leaving a gay man in general population is a pretty dangerous thing to do," said Lara Stemple, executive director at Stop Prisoner Rape.

She said that gay men are immediately forced into female roles, often taking on a woman's name. For the "straight" perpetrators, their heterosexuality is intact, in the eyes of other inmates, if he can feminize another man.

Stemple said that some prisons - like the Los Angeles Men's Central Jail - have separate wings for gay men because of how they are targeted for sexual abuse. At the Los Angeles jail, that wing is so desirable over the general population that many straight men claim to be gay so they can live in that wing.

While most of the stories that come into Stop Prisoner Rape are from state prisons, Stemple said that this is definitely happening in Federal prisons as well.

Then there is another issue - perhaps the most serious of all. As the Blade reported last week, prison officials put inmates in a lose-lose situation.

Because they don't want to admit that prison rape occurs, they refuse to provide condoms. The rate of HIV infection among inmates is much higher than the general population (many are intravenous drug users). So, along with the humiliation, anyone who is incarcerated may also contract HIV.