Aimee Green, State battles prison rape, attitudes: A new federal law has Oregon trying to reduce what's become a fact of life behind bars, The Oregonian, August 29, 2007.
Just a few months into his prison sentence, a 26-year-old burglar from small-town Oregon was lured into a secluded stairway of the Oregon State Penitentiary and raped by another inmate.
Nothing extraordinary in a nation where aggressive, violent inmates have long preyed on weaker ones. At least 4 percent of prison inmates anonymously reported in a national survey that they had been sexually assaulted in the previous year. In Oregon, that equates to more than 800 prisoners.
But what happened after the attack at the Salem prison stunned officials: The man reported the rape and agreed to testify.
Prosecutors think the victim, a first-timer to the Oregon prison system, came forward only because he was naive: He didn't know that inmates who snitch on other inmates risk being savagely beaten or raped again.
In Oregon and across the country, corrections officials are struggling to reverse decades of indifference toward rape behind bars and persuade more victims to report attacks. They are under pressure from a new federal law, the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, which requires jails and prisons to take steps to reduce sexual assaults or face loss of federal funding starting next year.
Each new arrival to the Oregon Department of Corrections is shown a 10-minute video providing tips on how to avoid falling prey and urging inmates to report attacks. Prison officers have been trained to notice signs that an inmate has been attacked. Staff are documenting each reported sexual assault in hopes of preventing future ones.
Prison administrators say part of their work is eradicating old attitudes.
No one, they say, deserves to be raped.
"These are real human beings," said Joan Palmateer, of the Oregon Department of Corrections, who cringes at the flippant portrayals of prison rape in popular culture. "It's not something to be joked or sneered at."
Multnomah County, a leader among Oregon counties in developing new rape-prevention policies, asks every inmate booked into its jails whether they've ever been sexually assaulted while locked up. A detective investigates each allegation, even if it is years old.
Because most attacks happen in cells, the county has started installing cell doors with larger windows that allow jail deputies to more easily see inside.
Some cells also have been converted from double to single occupancy.
"It's the right thing to do," Multnomah County sheriff's Lt. Mary Lindstrand said of the push to protect inmates.
Lindstrand said inmates who've been sexually abused leave jail angrier than when they arrived. They may lash out at strangers, their spouses or their kids. If they aren't treated, they may unknowingly spread diseases such as HIV.
"They need counseling like any other sexual assault victim," Lindstrand said.
Most attacks unreported
Experts say most victims of inmate-to-inmate sexual attacks are targeted because they're small, young or seen by other inmates as effeminate.
Eight of 10 victims are men.
Studies estimate that as many as one in five inmates has been a victim of sexual violence while incarcerated.
Almost always, experts say, victims don't report the attacks. Many feel enormous shame.
Those who do come forward risk getting beaten or marked for future sexual attacks.
The burglar who reported the rape in the Salem prison was transferred, and his attacker was sentenced to nearly 10 more years. However, the man lived in fear that inmates in the new prison would find out. He said he immediately started lifting weights, and in little more than a year his 5-foot-9 frame had grown from 140 pounds to 212 pounds.
Now free, the man still is tormented by the attack.
"It goes through my head every day: What could I have done differently so this would have never happened?" he said.
Prosecuting prison rapists continues to be a challenge statewide.
In the past two years, Malheur County prosecutors have convicted one inmate of raping another at the 3,000-prisoner Snake River Correctional Institution. One case is pending. Ten cases fell through because victims backed out or there was insufficient evidence, District Attorney Dan Norris said.
"What it often comes down to," Norris said, "is he said-he said."
Dean Gushwa, district attorney of Umatilla County, shares Norris' frustration.
"I don't like the fact that the convicts in prison think they're immune to the law," Gushwa said.
County forwards reports
Since last December, Multnomah County jail staff have fielded nearly 100 allegations of sexual assault, most reportedly happening in prisons in Oregon and Washington and other states as far as Hawaii and Kentucky.
Multnomah County sheriff's Detective Susan Lambert-Gates forwards the reports to institutions where the assaults occurred, in hopes that officials there will investigate.
Many cases reported in Multnomah County can't be prosecuted, Lambert-Gates said. In some cases, the statute of limitations has expired -- the oldest case reported happened 15 years ago. Or too much time has passed to collect evidence, such as DNA, that would help a prosecution.
But Lambert-Gates said she still refers inmates to a counselor and offers to console victims.
Earlier this month, inmate Christopher Lauricella told how he had fought off a rapist while incarcerated at the Oregon State Penitentiary last year. The Oregonian typically does not name the victims of sexual assault, but Lauricella said he wanted to tell his story to warn other inmates.
Lauricella said he frequently heard men being sexually assaulted at night. A strongly built man in his 40s, Lauricella was sent to prison for stealing copper pipe from a Northeast Portland construction site. He said he never thought he'd become a victim. But he began to worry last year when his 64-year-old cellmate -- twice convicted of sex offenses including rape -- made comments about Lauricella's body.
One morning last year, Lauricella said, he awoke to discover his cellmate groping him. Lauricella fended him off until the cell doors opened for the morning. He successfully pleaded for a new cell.
But Lauricella said some staff scoffed at his report of the attack.
"The captain's first response was 'That old dude?' And I said 'Yeah, he's a lot stronger than he looks,' " Lauricella said.
Prison records show that Lauricella reported the incident, but his cellmate was not prosecuted.
Kimberly Hendricks, who is coordinating the Department of Corrections' efforts to reduce sexual assaults, said she wasn't familiar with Lauricella's case.
Hendricks said other inmates have falsely alleged attacks for many reasons -- one ploy is to get a new cell or win a transfer to a different prison. Nonetheless, Hendricks said, officials need to take every allegation of sexual assault seriously.
"We're trying to change the culture," Hendricks said. "It's a slow process."
Oregon's system praised
Oregon's prison system has been praised by Stop Prisoner Rape, an advocacy organization based in Los Angeles. Executive Director Lovisa Stannow said Oregon is taking many of the right steps to combat the problem.
"It's really about prison management," Stannow said. "If you run a prison well, you will have few sexual assaults."
As part of their plan, Oregon prison officials evaluate each inmate for his potential to become a victim or an attacker.
Those who are younger than 25 or older than 65, first-time offenders and men who weigh less than 130 pounds or mentally impaired are more likely to be classified as "vulnerable" and housed where staff can keep a closer watch.
In turn, inmates with a sexually violent history are more likely to be classified as "sexually aggressive" and housed in higher security areas.
Prison staff also have posted a hot line throughout the prison system for inmates to report sexual assaults. Maintenance crews have installed more cameras and mirrors in areas that are difficult for correctional officers to see.
And then there's the 10-minute video and orientation about how to avoid being raped. It advises inmates to avoid an effeminate posture, to always stay within sight of staff and to never go into isolated areas.
Sharing snacks or gambling also is strictly forbidden -- and for good reason.
"Never allow yourself to be put in a position of owing another inmate for anything," advises the video, explaining that inmates may be expected to repay their debt with sex.
The video sometimes draws laughs and snickers from inmates, Hendricks said.
"Then they have an opportunity to ask any questions," Hendricks said. "Of course, there never are any."
Changing the culture of Oregon's prisons means getting inmates to buy in, Hendricks said.
"It's very hard," Hendricks said. "We have so much work to do."