Still Fighting,' Los Angeles Times, May 20, 1994.
He was only trying to protest the Vietnam War and follow a creed of
nonviolent resistance. But after he was gang-raped 50 times in the
jail, Stephen Donaldson started a war of his own.
It all began on a hot August afternoon in 1973, when he was arrested at a
White House pray-in. For reasons of conscience, the Quaker activist
refused to post $10 bail and was placed in a cell with other first-time
Then, without warning, he was sent to a wing with hardened criminals. Told
that some inmates wanted to meet him, Donaldson went to their cell. Within
seconds, the men beat him savagely, tore off his clothes and repeatedly
assaulted him. He managed to escape two days later, and only after his
attackers whispered that a guard was coming down the hall.
Like thousands before him, Donaldson was physically and emotionally
traumatized by prison rape. It would take him years to recover. Unlike
most victims, however, he was determined to speak out against a crime that
has reached epidemic proportions in some U.S.
prisons -- and is rarely discussed.
"I couldn't pretend it never happened," he says. "Some prison officials
figure people will keep quiet, and I'm convinced the D.C. jail set me up,
to teach me a political lesson. But they miscalculated with me. I was just
beginning to fight back, and I'm still fighting."
Today, Donaldson is president of
Stop Prison Rape, the only national advocacy group
focused solely on the problem. He debates the issue in public forums and
helped draft a friend of the court brief in Farmer vs. Brennan, a
watershed prison rape case awaiting a Supreme Court decision.
Next week, he's scheduled to testify in a hearing on prison rape before
the Massachusetts Legislature, and he'll deliver a shocking estimate:
Based on several decades of studies, Donaldson says, there are more than a
quarter-million sexual assaults on inmates each year in American
Across the nation, a handful of prosecutors, attorneys, psychologists,
religious leaders and politicians are trying to root out a cancer that is
deeply ingrained in the criminal justice system, yet traditionally rouses
little concern. Indeed, at a time when anger over crime is escalating,
many find it hard to feel compassion for men who are abused behind bars.
Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican and member of the U.S. Senate
Judiciary Committee, says society pays a heavy price for such attitudes:
"We ignore this prison-rape problem at our peril, because there is a great
potential for these victims to commit worse crimes when they get out of
jail. For anyone who cares about safety, it's a matter of common sense as
well as compassion."
Specter speaks from experience; he was district attorney of
in 1968 when a pioneering study was done of prison rape in that city's
jail system. The conclusions were devastating: Nearly 1,000 men were raped
each year in custody, and there were no programs to control the violence.
Since then, studies in other states have found similar horrors, as well as
evidence that many inmates are coerced into long-term sexual "coupling"
with stronger prisoners simply to ward off the possibility of repeated
But there has been little national response. Meanwhile, AIDS is spreading
rapidly in prisons and jails. In 1989, there were 14.65 AIDS cases per
100,000 in the general population, but the rate for state and federal
prisons was 202 cases per 100,000, according to the Bureau of Justice
provide condoms to inmates who request them, as do jails in
and New York
Nationwide, there are an estimated 50,000 prisoners infected with HIV and
the numbers are growing each year, says Nancy Mahon, director of the New
York-based AIDS in Prison Project. There are few HIV counseling programs
for those in custody.
"This is a powder keg waiting to explode," she says. "As we put more
people in jail, you have to wonder about the medical consequences, and
AIDS is one of them. If you put a kid in jail for petty theft and then he
gets raped, there's a whole downward cycle for him. And HIV could be the
It's a nightmare without end for victims, and every so often a gruesome
prison rape story finds its way into the media. Then it's forgotten.
Several days after his trauma, Donaldson held a news conference in
and later appeared on talk shows. He was the first American to personally
describe such sexual terror, and he hoped reforms would follow. By year's
end, however, his story had faded from view.
"The public indifference on this is staggering," Donaldson says. "And it's
harder for someone like me, because the trauma continues to haunt you. You
can be tormented by this. So often, there's just nowhere to turn."
Once a newspaper journalist, Donaldson's life changed radically after
1973. He now spends much of his time corresponding with inmates across the
country and pestering public officials to focus on the issue.
It's a thankless task:
Stop Prison Rape has little funding and only several
hundred members nationwide. Donaldson, 47, fights to keep it afloat.
A complex and thoughtful man, he speaks bitterly about the past but never
lapses into self-pity. His black jeans, long sideburns and fatigue jackets
set him apart from the pin-striped world he once seemed destined to enter,
and the harsh, unforgiving stories he tells distance him even more.
Donaldson can be a jarring character at first glance. Visitors gape at his
Stop Prison Rape baseball cap and he raises eyebrows
with a belt buckle reading "Punk." The word is more than a referral to his
taste in rock music. It's also prison slang for the passive sexual role he
was forced into behind bars.
Yet shock value is only part of his persona. Once Donaldson starts talking
about rape, there's no doubting his gravitas.
"This guy knocked me off my feet," says Deborah Denno, a Fordham
law professor, who invited Donaldson to address her seminar on rape. "He
was very smart and there was a depth of human emotion and feeling to what
he said. . . . His message is important."
Born in Norfolk,
to a military family, Donaldson's given name was Robert Martin. He was
high school valedictorian and attended Columbia
Friends and family members recall him as a smart, outgoing person who
seemed to have a golden future as a reporter, a lawyer or just about
anything else he wanted to be.
"He had tremendous promise. He thought he might conquer the world, but
after what happened I don't think he looks at the world that way," says
his stepmother, Brigitta Martin. "It altered his life forever. He's not
the same driven person I used to know."
Donaldson describes himself as a survivor, but he's been wrestling with
the demons of self-confidence and his own sexuality for nearly 21 years,
largely as the result of his prison experience. Personal justice has also
proved elusive: Angered that prosecutors declined to investigate
corrections officers for what he says was their role in his rape, he
refused to cooperate with a grand jury and the D.C. jail case was dropped.
In subsequent years, Donaldson's personal and professional life spun out
of control. He was briefly homeless, struggled to establish a literary
career and was arrested twice for drug possession. Although both charges
were dropped, he was jailed in North
facilities and, he says, again raped.
As a youth, Donaldson thought himself bisexual. But the D.C. assaults
shattered his self-image. He changed his name, tried to lose himself in
the world of punk rock music and sought relief in Far Eastern
The cracking point for the Navy veteran came in 1980, when he demanded
treatment for a badly cut hand at the Veterans Hospital
in the Bronx
and was told to come back later. Enraged, he pulled a handgun and shot out
the window in a hospital door. He served four years in federal prison,
where Donaldson says he was yet again assaulted.
Unlike most parolees, Donaldson got counseling after his release and
learned to deal with rape trauma survivors syndrome. He's since been
trained as a rape counselor and has produced a pioneering set of audio
tapes to help prisoners cope with the experience. A New York
resident, he's working on an encyclopedia of homosexuality and is a
well-known punk rock journalist.
"You might wonder, how did a pacifist like me, a Quaker, go from
nonviolent resistance to being a gunman?" he asks. "And the answer is very
simple. What happened to me during and after the D.C. jail is an old
And as American as apple pie. Take a gullible kid, put him through the
hell of prison rape, then set him loose on the streets. Watch the rage
build, until he explodes in violence and returns to jail. The cycle is
In the United
it goes back at least 170 years. In 1824, the Rev. Louis Dwight, a New
England prison reformer, toured many jails and lamented a barbaric culture
where stronger, older prisoners repeatedly raped younger inmates, turning
them into sexual slaves.
"Since October, 1824, I have visited most of the prisons on two routes,
and (in) the New
and New York,"
Dwight wrote. "And I have found melancholy testimony to establish one
general fact . . . that boys are prostituted to the lust of old convicts.
Nature and humanity cry aloud for redemption from this dreadful
It's gotten worse.
Although there are no statistics documenting the prevalence, scores of
court cases brought by victims and a handful of studies suggest that
sexual attacks behind bars are widespread. Yet they are rarely reported
because of a code of silence that threatens informers with death.
Meanwhile, corrections officials are reluctant to probe such behavior
because it suggests that they've lost control of their institutions. As a
result, the overwhelming number of cases rarely make it to court.
One typical administrative response is to place victims in protective
custody, away from other convicts. But the solitude drives many men mad,
and there have been documented cases of victims raped in seclusion. For
the most part, thousands of vulnerable prisoners continue to be placed in
cells or large holding areas with seasoned sexual offenders.
In the 1968
study, only 3% of the estimated 1,000 yearly attacks were reported to
officials. In 1982, researchers at a
prison found that 14% of inmates had been assaulted. Yet the real number
was thought to be higher, because many men were reluctant to admit being
raped. A New York
study found that 28% of prisoners had been sexually attacked.
The only current study of jailhouse rape is being conducted in the Nebraska
prison system by Cindy Struckman-Johnson, a professor at the
Her preliminary data, based on confidential questionnaires, confirms the
14% sexual assault rate found in
"Some of the answers we get are truly heartbreaking," Johnson reports.
"Young prisoners say they either fight off a guy, or they're destroyed."
one witness described a young man's gang rape:
"They had the kid on the floor. About 12 fellows took turns with him. This
went on for two hours. . . . He lay there for about 20 minutes and (one)
came over and pulled his pants down and raped him again. When he got done,
(another) did it again, and about four or five others got on him."
Why does it happen?
Many criminologists believe prison rape mirrors crime in the outside
world. It's a symbol of power for the attacker, a vehicle for aggression.
Inmates battle for dominance in the racially tense, overcrowded worlds of
most jails and prisons, and, for many, rape is synonymous with strength.
"There aren't many weapons in a prison, and so the penis becomes a weapon
of control," says Wayne Wooden, coordinator of the Criminal Justice and
Corrections program at
"It's how prisoners assert themselves and show others that they're
Wooden, who co-authored the 1982 study of sexual abuse in a
prison, adds that many men are targeted for attack the minute they enter
confinement. Typical victims are young, slightly built males without
knowledge of prison culture or street-fighting techniques. Although
homosexuals are obvious targets, most victims are heterosexual.
Once behind bars, predators compete to see who will be the first to attack
them -- or "turn them out," in prison parlance. After a man is assaulted,
word spreads rapidly through the institution and he's identified as a
punk. His body belongs to someone else as long as he is in custody.
"Few female rape victims must repay their rapist for the violence he
inflicted upon them by devoting their existence to servicing his every
prison inmates Wilbert Rideau and Ron Wikberg in their book, "Life
"But rape victims in the world of prison must."
The immediate consequences of jailhouse rape are devastating. Many victims
are pressured into believing they have been turned into women, that their
masculinity is gone. They frequently go into shock and some attempt
"Your biggest problem is that few prisoners who are raped get prompt
psychological counseling," says Maud Easter, who chairs the New York State
Coalition Against Sexual Assault. "Someone who has experienced this needs
They're in pain, and they've got nowhere to turn."
That's how Donaldson felt after his gang rape: stunned, bloodied and
utterly alone. He relives these memories in the wrenching letters sent to
him by prisoners across the nation.
Many of these inmates committed serious crimes, while others protest their
innocence. None expected that sexual trauma would be part of their
Writes "Michael," from an Arizona
In October, 1974, I was
18 years old, youthfully dumb and full of fun. Charged with four counts of
petty forgery, I landed in the Pima Co. jail in Tucson,
I was brutally beaten, savagely and repeatedly raped.
For LeShawn Cummings, at the state prison in
the trauma is heightened by the belief that authorities don't believe him:
I was sodomized and forced to commit oral copulation against my will in my
cell. My cellmate would threaten to beat me up if I did not have sex with
him. I told the correctional officers but they did not believe me and sent
me back to the cell to endure more pain.
convict writes that, at 23, he was gang-raped. After a hospital stay,
officials put him in protective custody:
It's been 18 months now.
I don't talk to no prisoners at all to this day. I don't have no money.
Nothing. No TV or stereo. I sit in my cell and cry a lot. I've cut my
wrists three times. The state didn't do anything.
That's a common complaint. Yet many correctional officials say the problem
is either overblown or impossible to document. They suggest that U.S.
jails and prisons do a much better job controlling rape than is generally
Hardy Rauch, an officer with the American Corrections Assn., argues that
sexual assaults are more prevalent in society than in prisons. It would be
impossible to guarantee complete security, he says, because that would
mean hiring a guard for each of the nation's 1.2 million inmates.
The ACA, an accrediting organization that includes prisons and jails in
all 50 states, is aware of the issue, Rauch says, but adds: "It's not
considered to be a nationwide problem. And I'd ask you: Is a warden more
culpable when someone is attacked in prison than the mayor of Los
is if a policeman isn't watching your house when it's robbed?"
Other officials say rape isn't a problem in their institutions. At Rikers Island
in New York,
the nation's largest municipal jail complex, spokesman Tom Antenen says
sexual assaults are few. At the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which houses
84,000 prisoners in 75 facilities, spokesman Dan Dunne suggests that rape
is "relatively low." Neither offers statistics.
The California Department of Corrections does not keep specific records of
sexual assaults in its 28 prisons. Records were logged from 1970 to 1988,
however, and they ranged from a low of four in 1973 to a high of 64 in
1987. Currently, there are 121,800 inmates in the system, the nation's
the sprawling county jail system reported 52 sexual assaults last year,
says Jake Katz, custody management specialist with the Sheriff's
Department. The system holds a daily average of 21,000 inmates.
On rare occasions, prosecutors file charges against prison rapists. But
even when victims win, the victory is a Pyrrhic one. Michael Wheat, an
attorney in San
believes that he is the first federal prosecutor to successfully bring
charges against one prisoner accused of raping another.
In the 1993 case, inmate Gary Gonzaga told a U.S. District Court that he
had been attacked by Frederick Garcia-Cruz while both were in custody at
The defendant eventually pleaded guilty to aggravated assault, adding five
years to his sentence.
"I was pleased with the outcome, but it's only a drop in the bucket," says
Wheat, who had to persuade Gonzaga to participate in the case. "You're
dealing with inmates, and juries aren't likely to find either side
"When a play is set in hell, you can't cast it with angels."
Most inmates never get as far as a courtroom, and protection comes at a
price. Donaldson, like thousands of other prisoners, took on the role of a
punk and serviced stronger men to avoid further gang rapes. While
corrections officials usually forbid any sexual activity, many passively
permit such relationships because they promote stability in their
Looking back, Donaldson says life as a punk deepened his self-awareness.
He believes that he's become more sensitive to the brutalization of women,
and suggests that some prison relationships made him feel wanted and
The war still rages in his head.
It erupts when he addresses a recent lunch seminar at New York
University Law School.
Bearing an armful of
Stop Prison Rape literature, he sits quietly at the head
of a table and watches while students munch cookies.
Then Donaldson grabs their attention. He plays the beginning of a cassette
he produced, "An Ounce of Prevention," which dramatizes a prison rape: 40
seconds of terror, pleading, muffled screams and sobs.
The audience looks shaken.
"If all of you were male, that could be you as a victim," he tells the
crowd, his eyes sweeping the room. "You'd be meat on the table."
For the next hour, there's silence as Donaldson tells his story and
criticizes many groups -- feminists, gays, victims' rights organizers,
politicians, judges, attorneys and the general public -- for what he calls
a cruel indifference to the trauma of men in U.S. prisons and jails.
There's applause, but then a hostile questioner shatters the mood.
"Isn't fear of rape a good deterrent to crime?" the student asks. "And
aren't prisons supposed to be terrible places? When you talk about using
taxpayers' money for these programs . . . I couldn't justify that."
Donaldson fixes the questioner with a hard, penetrating stare.
been in prison?" he asks. "Do you know
anyone in prison?"
The student shakes his head.
"Then how can you say such a thing?" Donaldson demands with a look of pain
"How could you possibly