Can We Put an End to Inmate
Rape, USA Today, May 1,
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
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
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,
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
For further information, write to Stop Prisoner Rape, Inc., P.O. Box
Mr. Donaldson, president of
Stop Prison Rape, Inc., New York,
was the victim of a two-day gang-rape in the
jail after a Quaker pray-in on the White House lawn in 1973. A seminar
associate at Columbia
he wrote and directed the Prisoner Rape Education Project of the New York
State Council od Churches.