The fight against
rape in our communities is doomed to failure and will remain an exercise
in futility as long as it ignores the network of training grounds for
rapists: our prisons, jails and reform schools.
For too long, we have
turned away from the rape crisis in these institutions, which now hold
1.3 million men and boys. In most of them, rape is an entrenched tradition,
considered by prisoners a legitimate way to 'prove their manhood' and
to satisfy sexual needs and the brutal desire for power.
The exact number of
sexually assaulted prisoners is unknown, but a conservative estimate,
based on extrapolations of two decades of surveys, is that more than 290,000
males are sexually assaulted behind bars every year. By comparison, the
Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that there are 135,000 rapes of
women a year nationwide, though many groups believe the number is higher.
Once victimized, a
prisoner is marked as a continual target for sexual attack and is repeatedly
subjected to gang rapes, or must trade submission to one or more men in
exchange for protection from the rest. Very few of these rapes are ever
reported to administrators, much less prosecuted.
Twenty years ago,
I was gang raped while in jail on a charge for which I was later acquitted.
(I was arrested for participating in a Quaker 'pray-in' at the White House
to protest the bombings in Cambodia.) I soon learned that victims of prison
rape were, like me, usually the youngest, the smallest, the nonviolent,
the first-timers and those charged with less serious crimes.
If a prisoner is middle-class,
not 'street-wise,' not affiliated with a gang, not part of the racial
or ethnic group that dominates his institution or held in a big city jail,
he is likely to be a target.
The victims are usually
heterosexuals who are forced into a passive sexual role, though the relatively
few known homosexuals are perhaps three times as likely to be raped. The
assailants are almost always heterosexual by preference; thus the phrase
'homosexual rape' is extremely misleading. (Though the problem has not
been adequately studied, sexual attack among female prisoners is thought
to be much rarer; women are, however, far more likely to be sexually abused
The catastrophic experience
of sexual violence usually extends beyond a single incident, often becoming
a daily assault. Psychologists and rape counselors believe that the pent-up
rage caused by these assaults can cause victims, especially if they don't
receive psychological treatment, to erupt in violence once they return
to their communities. Some will become rapists, seeking to 'regain their
manhood' through the same violent means by which they believe it was lost.
In this way, our prisons,
jails and detention centers can set in motion a truly vicious cycle, turning
nonviolent detainees and minor offenders into far more serious dangers
to society -- exactly the opposite function our 'correctional institutions'
are supposed to serve. Even an attempted sexual attack that is warded
off -- a typical experience for a 'fresh fish,' or first-time prisoner
-- can be severely traumatic, besides being a chief cause of serious injury
While prison officials
privately concede the existence of this widespread pattern of abuse, prisoner
victims are ignored in national rape statistics and estimates, and little
has been done to stop the attacks. A primary reason is that the rape of
men has long been a taboo subject, frightening victims away from even
acknowledging that they have been attacked and asking for help.
While some prison
system professionals want to address the problem, most prefer to ignore
it; no doubt many see it as a public relations embarrassment rather than
the life-and-death issue it has become in the age of AIDS.
The public and the
media, however, are finally becoming more sensitive to sexual abuse behind
bars and more willing to break through these old taboos. The courts are
also beginning to prod wardens and sheriffs to protect the prisoners.
In July , for
example, the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit upheld
an injunction that required the Glades Correctional Institution in Belle
Glade, Fla., to establish a training program to educate its staff about
prisoner rape. The program is the first of its kind in the country.
And on Jan. 12 ,
the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Farmer v. Brennan, in which
a prisoner sued Federal prison officials for failing to prevent his rape.
Another approach to
prisoner rape was launched this summer when the Safer
Society Press of the New York State Council of Churches published
the Prisoner Rape Education Project, a manual and two audiotapes of practical
advice for pfisoners and staff on avoidance and survival of prisoner rape.
One of the manual's
most important recommendations is that condoms, now available in New York
City jails but still contraband in the New York State system, be made
available to victims of rape 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 possible
Rape, which no judge
has ever declared a fit penalty for a crime, is inflicted daily on prisoners
whose sole offense may have been their inability to make bail.
When will the attacks
end? Not until the public turns its averted eyes back to the walls that
were built and are maintained at great expense by taxpayers to promote
the public safety. Not until all staff members are trained more effectively
to prevent rape and to respond sympathetically to victims. Not until all
new prisoners are given practical advice on avoidance, rather than the
often dangerous suggestion to turn informer after the fact.
And not until prisoners,
with the support of administrators, organize themselves and take responsibility
for ending this horror.
Trained rape counselors
must be made available to all rape victims while they are still in custody,
and community rape crisis centers should make 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 we break the wall of silence around sexual violence in our
a writer, is president of Stop Prisoner Rape, a national organization.