JDI IN THE NEWS - ARCHIVED

Stephen Donaldson, Can We Put an End to Inmate Rape, USA Today, May 1, 1995.  

THE FIGHT against the crime of rape is doomed to failure, and will remain an exercise in futility, as long as it ignores the vast network of training schools for rapists--jails, prisons, and reform schools. The nation long has turned a blind eye to these facilities, currently holding about 1,400,000 males and jailing approximately 4,000,000 men in the course of a year. There, rape is an institutionalized tradition, considered by prisoners a way to prove their manhood and satisfy sexual and power needs. Most of these inmates return to the streets with such attitudes, many of them having become rapists while locked up.  

The precise number of sexually assaulted prisoners is unknown, but rough estimates can be derived by extrapolating previous studies of a jail system (by Philadelphia District Attorney Alan J. Davis) and medium-security prison (by sociologists Wayne S. Wooden and Jay Parker, their data confirmed by a 1994 survey of an entire state prison system) to estimate conservatively that more than 300,000 males are sexually assaulted behind bars every year. This compares with a 1992 Bureau of Justice Statistics estimate of 135,000 female rapes a year outside confinement. By all accounts, the situation is even worse in juvenile detention centers. Once victimized, a prisoner is marked as a continual target for sexual exploitation and repeatedly is subjected to gang rapes, or must trade sexual use by one or a few men for protection from the remainder. An estimated 60,000 prisoners are subjected to involuntary sex each day. Very few of these rapes ever are reported to administrators, much less prosecuted.  

The victims usually are the youngest, smallest, nonviolent, first-time offenders, and those facing less serious charges. If a prisoner is middle-class; not "streetwise," gang-affiliated, or part of the racial or ethnic group that dominates his institution; lacks fighting expertise; or is held in a big-city jail, he is more likely to be a target. The more of these victim characteristics that apply, the more likely to prisoner will be targeted. The victims generally are heterosexuals who are forced into a passive sexual role, though known homosexuals behind bars are three times as likely to be raped. (The assailants almost always are heterosexual in identity, preference, and practice outside confinement; thus, the widely used phrase "homosexual rape" in the context of confinement is extremely misleading.) Rape among female prisoners is unusual, but not unknown; they are far more likely to be sexually abused by keepers.  

The catastrophic experience of violent penetration, unimaginably devastating to the typical heterosexual male, usually extends beyond a single incident, often becoming a daily occurrence. It tends to transform those victims who remain psychologically untreated into capsules of pent-up rage that can produce violence once they return to the community. Some of these victims will become rapists themselves, seeking to "regain their manhood" through the same violent means by which they have been led to believe it was lost. Other released victims look for revenge on society, which they see as the sponsor of the institution wherein their sense of self was demolished and they may have been infected with HIV. Numerous studies have shown that sexual abusers in the community are very likely to have been victims of sexual abuse themselves, most commonly as boys; there is no reason to think this dynamic does not apply to prisoners.  

Even an attempted sexual attack that is warded off--a typical experience for a "fresh fish" or new prisoner--can cause severe trauma and enormous increases in stress, defensiveness, and violent reactions, as well as being one of the chief sources of combat injury behind bars. In this way, penal and detention institutions unwittingly inaugurate a vicious cycle, turning nonviolent detainees and minor offenders into far more serious dangers to the community--exactly the opposite of what our "correctional" institutions are supposed to do!  

While this pattern of abuse has been documented in America since at least 1826 (when the Rev. Louis Dwight of Boston wrote that "Nature and humanity cry aloud for redemption from this dreadful degradation"), and its widespread existence has been conceded privately by virtually everyone knowledgeable about confinement, little has been done to stop it. Even after Davis made headlines with his report on the massive rape problem in the Philadelphia jails, including information on the demographic characteristics of victims and rapists and the reasons why almost none of these rapes were reported officially, nothing was done. Newspapers in 1973 cited Nixon Administration aide John Dean's fear of prison rape as motivation for his agreement to cooperate with Watergate prosecutors, and the same year, Washington was shocked at the highly publicized gang-rape of a Quaker anti-war protester being held in jail pending $ 10 bail, but nothing was done. The next year, two journalists, Carl Weiss and David J. Friar, wrote a book-length expose, Terror in the Prisons, but nothing was done.  

Connecticut reform school psychologist Anthony M. Scacco, Jr., authored Rape in Prison in 1975, but nothing was done. In 1979, a black prisoner, Russell D. Smith, founded People Organized to Stop Rape of Imprisoned Persons (now Stop Prisoner Rape, Inc.) and established chapters inside several Midwest prisons, but Smith mysteriously vanished in 1983, and nothing was done. Wooden and Parker published their extensive findings on sexual exploitation in a California prison in the book Men Behind Bars in 1982, the same year Scacco published his anthology of articles, Male Rape. Still, nothing was done. Smith's successors as head of POSRIP, Tom Cahill and Stephen Donaldson, tried hard to get someone to listen, but with few exceptions (notably an NBC News documentary in August, 1986), nobody responded.  

Ignoring the problem  

Although the damning facts were in print and known to penologists, officials unanimously claimed "it may be a problem elsewhere, but not in our well-run system." Prisoner victims were and still are ignored in all official rape statistics (governments are not eager to report on horrors committed under their care and responsibility) as well as in unofficial estimates by victim advocates, who generally have been disinclined to recognize the existence of male victims. The Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics has been particularly resistant (perhaps because it is an arm of the Justice Department, which also includes the Federal prison system) to including prisoners among the subjects of its crime victimization surveys.  

With no government or victim center figures to report and no questions asked, the news media have perpetuated the idea that only women are raped. A major reason is that the rape of any male long has been a taboo subject for public discussion, surrounded by numerous popular myths involving issues of manhood, vulnerability, humiliation, and homophobia, all of which prevent examination of the subject and frighten victims away from acknowledging it or asking for help.  

Traditional legal concepts of rape as gender-specific--as well as now-outdated concepts that rape is a "woman's issue" and men always the oppressive enemy, never the fellow victim--have obscured the reality that this crime of violence can be inflicted on men as well as women. Such views, now largely abandoned by rape counselors and clinicians, still influence the actions and rhetoric of too many rape and victim activists, who in pamphlets, public statements, and articles continue to refer to victims only as women. This picture still dominates the mass media.  

The men's movement also have remained silent and generally unaware of the problem. Even those (mostly therapists and survivors) who have built a national "male survivors' movement" to promote treatment for adult survivors of boyhood sexual abuse have ignored men raped as adults.  

This general silence on the vast extent of sexual victimization of adult males blocks the development of programs to acknowledge and help treat survivors, and thus promotes the vicious cycle that produces further assaults on women and men. It is an irrational and self-defeating taboo.  

Efforts to deal with rape in confinement meet additional obstacles. As noted by Vermont Commissioner of Corrections John F. Gorczyk, "society reacts with a combination of fear, disgust, and denial." Common views include "Don't tell me, I don't want to know" and "They get what they deserve." Behind these attitudes are images of violent criminals reaping what they have sown, but in reality it is they who are doing the raping and the nonviolent who are being raped. Some see the threat of jailhouse rape as a valid deterrent to crime.  

None of these attitudes will withstand public scrutiny. While there are some concerned corrections professional who would like to deal with the issue, most prefer simply to ignore the systemic nature of the problem, considered a public relations embarrassment, rather than realistically acknowledge and deal with what has become a life-and-death issue in the age of AIDS.  

The public and the media, however, are becoming more sensitive to questions of sexual abuse and more willing to break through old taboos surrounding issues of sex and of violence. Coverage slowly is rising, with a December, 1993, op-ed piece in The New York Times leading to 1994 articles by the Los Angeles Times and a lengthy investigative series by the Boston Globe, which helped spur Massachusetts legislative hearings in May, 1994, the first in the nation on prison rape. CNN and the Court News cable networks have run stories, but the national broadcast media have stayed away. A statewide poll of Massachusetts votes taken by the Globe as part of the series found 63% of the public concerned about prison rape, 78% in favor of state efforts to prevent it, and 73% supporting condom distribution in the prisons.  

A new approach to prisoner rape is represented by the Prisoner Rape Education Project (PREP), a pioneering team effort by survivors and professionals, issued in 1993 by the Safer Society project of the New York State Council of Churches. The first work to provide practical information and advice to prisoners and staff on avoidance and survival, it consists of two audio tapes designed for prisoner audiences and a manual for staff.  

The PREP manual outlines numerous areas where changes in administrative policy and practice would help counter sexual assault and assist the largely neglected victims, for whom rape becomes a daily problem. One strong recommendation urges that condoms (still contraband in most systems, including the Federal prisons, a life-or-death public health issue the Office of the Surgeon-General continues to ignore) be made available to rape survivors who have paired off with stronger prisoners for their own protection, as most of them do, so that these victims can avoid turning survival-driven sex from a degrading necessity into a death penalty for a nonviolent offense.  

The courts finally, if reluctantly, are waking up and unevenly prodding wardens and sheriffs to protect their charges against what has become a potentially lethal injury. The Federal Court of Appeals (11th Circuit) affirmed in July, 1993, a staff-wide prison training program on rape, the first of its kind. It was ordered by Florida district court judge James C. Paine, who found in 1990, in LaMarca v. Turner, that "rape is one of the most degrading events, short of death, that can occur in prison."  

Even more significant was the Supreme Court's unanimous 1994 decision (written by Justice David Souter) in Farmer v. Brennan, reinstating a prisoner's claim for money damages from prison officials for failure to protect from prison rape. The Eighth Amendment civil rights suit Dee Farmer brought to the Supreme Court without help from any lawyer had been dismissed by lower courts. Stop Prisoner Rape filed a "friend of the court" brief in the case that, according to an analysis in Prison Legal News, "the Supreme Court appears to have relied on" and "gave an excellent view of the problem."  

The Court's decision was a complex one with regard to suits for money damages, but went out of its way to encourage prisoners to sue for court-ordered changes in official policies and practices that contribute to the danger of sexual assault behind bars. In what Corrections Forum termed a landmark ruling, the Court said, "the government and its officials are not free to let the state of nature take its course. . . . Being violently assaulted in prison is simply not part of the penalty."  

Justice Harry A. Blackmun, in a concurring opinion, stated that the decision "sends a clear message to prison officials that their affirmative duty under the Constitution to provide for the safety of inmates is not to be taken lightly." Calling the system of institutionalized rape "nothing less than torture," Blackmun wrote: "The horrors experienced by many young inmates, particularly those who, like Farmer , are convicted of nonviolent offenses, border on the unimaginable. Prison rape not only threatens the lives of those who fall prey to their aggressors, but is potentially devastating to the human spirit. Shame, depression, and a shattering loss of self-esteem accompany the perpetual terror the victim thereafter must endure."  

Reluctance to intervene  

Nevertheless, the legal profession has been reluctant to respond to pleas from victimized prisoners for assistance with such suits, even where the evidence makes for a compelling case. Despite Farmer's success, without legal help, few prisoners can get a hearing in a court, much less justice. Even organizations set up to provide legal assistance for prisoners have failed to respond. Massachusetts Prisoners Legal Services, despite the well-documented rape crisis in that state, refuses to bring litigation under Farmer against prison officials to improve the situation, maintaining that such efforts would involve us in a conflict of interest, prisoners against prisoners." Other prisoner-assistance groups find the topic too uncomfortable personally or perhaps feel it is bad public relations to discuss the horrors inflicted by prisoners while officials look away. Thus, their indifference matches that of the keepers.  

There are all too many cases like that of Bobby Lusk, awaiting execution in Florida for killing another prisoner who had raped him two days earlier and promised to do it again. None of the lawyers involved in his trial, sentencing, or years of appeals at the state and Federal level bothered to mention that he was reacting to and defending himself against rape. Essentially, Lusk is to die for refusing to accept the label of "punk" and its inevitable further sexual abuse and for exhausting his appeals with court-appointed lawyers too squeamish to discuss the facts that would have saved his life.  

The catastrophic psychological, medical, and criminological effects of rape trauma syndrome on victims will continue to reverberate through U.S. society for generations. The situation is getting worse, not better. Every year, increasing numbers of nonviolent offenders are being locked up and subjected to rape. As a result of the trend toward ever-lengthening prison terms, convicts who used to think they could forgo sex for a few years now feel that, with womanless decades ahead of them, they might as wen give high priority to finding themselves a punk. The widespread popular association of AIDS with homosexuals has put a greater premium on heterosexual anal virgins as preferred sex objects, and these only can be obtained through rape. More and more of those infected with HIV in this way will get sick with AIDS and add to the public expense as well as the private burden;. Once released, they will spread the virus even more.  

When will this outrage finally meet with determined efforts to curb it and to intervene with counseling and care before its victims become victimizers in turn, this time on the streets? It will not happen until the public, the ultimate jailor, turns its averted eyes back to those walls, which were built and are maintained at enormous expense by taxpayers in order to promote the public safety, not to facilitate rape and to spread the notion that rape is a way to "prove your manhood"; the institutions take realistic steps to counter this horror and help its victim--efforts the public, courts, and elected officials must demand; attorneys agree to fight for the victims in court; elected officials are asked why they tolerate such practices in the institutions they supervise; and all staff members are trained to deal realistically with prisoner rape, and effective proactive, preemptive measures and sympathetic responses to victims become criteria by which the professionalism of the staff is judged.  

Nothing will be accomplished until new prisoners are provided with factual practical advice on how to avoid rape, rather than unrealistic and often very dangerous suggestions to turn informer after the fact; survivors are given better options than suicide, more violence, or much more harshly punitive confinement conditions under the guise of "protective custody"; realistic classification systems based on demographic characteristics of victims are worked out to separate vulnerable sexual targets from their predators; and prisoners, with the support of administrators, organize themselves and ultimately take responsibility for ending this horror within their midst.  

The vicious cycle that exacts its eventual brutal toll from the women and girls and men and boys who are raped in American communities will not abate until trained independent rape counselors are made available to all rape victims while they are still in custody, and community rape crisis centers make determined efforts to reach out to the hundreds of thousands of former prisoners who have survived rape physically, but not emotionally.  

None of this will happen unless the silence around sexual violence in institutions of confinement is broken. The media, attorneys, sexual abuse activists, and elected and appointed officials in charge of public safety must face up to their responsibilities to bring the topic of sexual abuse in prisons to public light. Then, the silent screams finally will be heard.  

For further information, write to Stop Prisoner Rape, Inc., P.O. Box 2713, Manhattanville Station, New York, NY 10027.  

Mr. Donaldson, president of Stop Prison Rape, Inc., New York, was the victim of a two-day gang-rape in the Washington, D.C., jail after a Quaker pray-in on the White House lawn in 1973. A seminar associate at Columbia University, he wrote and directed the Prisoner Rape Education Project of the New York State Council od Churches.