Sarah Kelley, Abuse behind bars, The Washington Examiner, June 24, 2005.

Her son was no saint, Linda Bruntmyer said, but he was a good kid with a big heart, a hard worker who loved computers and karate.

"He was a typical kid doing mischievous things at times," she said.

Mischief led Rodney Hulin - 16 at the time - to set a Dumpster on fire and then try to run from police.

That was the beginning of the end for Rodney, who eventually was sent to an adult prison for the crime. It was in prison that Rodney hung himself with a bed sheet after being repeatedly raped by fellow inmates.

Though Rodney's case was particularly brutal because of his young age, federal Judge Reggie B. Walton, who heads the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission here in Washington, told The Examiner this week that rapes in prison are not unusual.

"Based on what we've been told, we believe it is an extensive problem," Walton said, adding, "If anybody ends up being raped in the prison setting, that is one case too many."

Bruntmyer, from Texas, and others from across the nation whose lives have been affected by prison rape told their stories to the commission last Wednesday. The commission was established as a result of the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003.

An issue for the District

Although there is no prison in the District, the potential for sexual assaults inside the D.C. Jail is an issue, Walton said.

In addition, he also noted the large number of city residents incarcerated in prisons in other areas of the country and the potential for sexual assault on these men and women who likely will return to Washington upon their release.

The commission meeting was the first step toward determining how prevalent sexual assaults are in prison - a problem that's difficult to assess because they often go unreported or are ignored.

The statistics

The statistics vary, but the nonprofit group Stop Prison Rape estimates one in five male inmates report forced or pressured sex and one in 10 report being raped by another inmate.

If they were raped while in prison, they could be more inclined to engage in violence and might be carrying a sexually transmitted disease.

Again, statistics vary when it comes to the number of prisoners infected with HIV, but it's believed that the number is steadily climbing among the more than 2 million individuals incarcerated nationwide.

That means that for some inmates, like Keith DeBlasio, incarceration becomes a death sentence.

After being convicted of passing forged checks, DeBlasio was sent to a minimum-security prison in Morgantown, W.Va. DeBlasio, 37, said he complained when he noticed guards breaking the rules, and as a result he was accused of misconduct - charges later proven false.

But because of the accusations, he was transferred to a high-security prison in Michigan. "It was here that my nightmare began. It was here that I was sexually assaulted by the same assailant, more times than I can even count," he told the commission.

But his nightmare was only beginning.

Eventually DeBlasio began to experience swollen lymph nodes, vomiting, diarrhea, weakness and scabs on his scalp. He had been infected with HIV.

"I was a nonviolent offender, but I was given a life sentence. I was repeatedly denied protection from a known predator with HIV," he testified. "Why did I receive this life sentence? And why doesn't anyone have to answer for their actions? At this point, I can only ask why."

That is the same question that Bruntmyer has been wondering since her son's death in 1996.

"He told me he was emotionally and mentally destroyed," Bruntmyer said, adding that her son sent letters detailing the rapes, but there was nothing she could do.

"We were frightened for him from the start ... Rodney was a small guy, only 5 foot 2 and about 125 pounds. And as a first-time offender, we knew he might be targeted," she said.