The story of Scott Howard, who endured extortion and rape by an inmate gang in Colorado's prison system, was told in detail for the first time in my feature "The Devil's Playground" three months ago. But our account quickly went viral -- and Howard, now free to speak out about prison rape, has become a high-profile presence on an issue long considered a media taboo.
As our piece recounts, Howard went public with his ordeal last year at a hearing on the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act -- a piece of legislation that's been many years in the making and still hasn't put much of a dent in the estimated 200,000 sexual assaults that occur in America's prisons and jails every year. But a more startling breakthrough occurred just days after our article went online.
Howard was invited on behalf of Just Detention International, a nonprofit crusading against prison rape, to speak at the national "congress" of the American Correctional Association, a trade group dominated by prison administrators and corrections officers. He electrified the room with his account of how prison officials ignored his pleas for protection and told him he was being a "drama queen." When he was done, the crowd greeted him with thunderous applause. One veteran prison administrator told him, "Scott, it wasn't your fault" -- and hugged him.
"I could never have expected the ACA to invite JDI -- much less a prisoner rape survivor -- to address its membership," JDI executive director Lovisa Stannow wrote on the group's website. "Just one year ago, this would have been unthinkable."
And last week, a story in The Economist about the slow march to implementing the Prison Rape Elimination Act led with a discussion of Howard and his battles with prison officials.
Howard is on federal parole now. He settled a lawsuit against prison officials for $165,000, much of which went to his lawyers. He keeps a low profile in his community and workplace, concerned about possible retaliation from the 211 Crew members he identified as his attackers and blowback from employers who don't want to hear that one of their own is a prison rape survivor. But none of this has kept him from emerging as one of the country's most powerful speakers on one of its most shameful secrets.