Stephen Donaldson, 49 - Led Reform Movement Against Jailhouse Rape
July 19, 1996
NEW YORK - Stephen Donaldson, president of Stop Prisoner Rape, an organization dedicated to ending the rape of prisoners and assisting survivors of jailhouse rape, died on Thursday, July 18 in New York City, where he lived. He would have been 50 on July 27. The cause of death was a indeterminate virulent infection complicated by an AIDS-defining condition. Mr. Donaldson was infected with HIV as a result of having been raped in prison.
Born Robert A. Martin, Jr., in Norfolk, Virginia, he started using the name Stephen Donaldson in the late 1960's, originally as a pseudonym for his involvement in the gay liberation movement. Under both identities, Mr. Donaldson had numerous "firsts" to his name: he was the founder in 1966 of the world's first gay student organizations (at Columbia University), and was the first sailor to publicly fight discharge from the U.S. Navy for "homosexual behavior." His defenders included New York State Representatives Ed Koch and Bella Abzug. In 1977, he became the first U.S. Navy veteran to have a homosexual discharge upgraded to fully Honorable Discharge under President Jimmy Carter.
But it was another first -- a brutal episode in a Washington, D.C. jail -- that catapulted Donaldson to national prominence in 1973, as the first survivor of jailhouse rape to discuss the issue publicly. He called a press conference to describe his experience after being jailed for trespass at the White House during a peaceful Quaker protest against the bombing of Cambodia. His jailhouse experience was at first relatively innocuous until the warden of the jail, suspecting that Donaldson, a former Associated Press reporter, might be writing an expose of brutal prison conditions. The warden transferred him to a cellblock with violent offenders, where he was gang-raped approximately 60 times over a two-day period. Upon being released, he underwent rectal surgery at a Veteran's Administration hospital. He later testified about his experience at a Washington, D.C. city council hearing. The Washington Star-News, calling for the resignation of the head of the D.C. jail, called Mr. Donaldson "a man of uncommon understanding."
Mr. Donaldson went on to become a prominent spokesman on the issue of prison rape. In 1984 he became Eastern regional director for Stop Prisoner Rape (then called "People Organized to Stop Rape of Imprisoned Persons") and was named president of the organization in 1988, a position he held at the time of his death.
As director of SPR, Mr. Donaldson wrote op-eds that appeared in The New York Times and USA Today Magazine and was the subject of numerous interviews and news articles, including profiles in The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and Penthouse magazine. Most recently, Mr. Donaldson was featured in a widely publicized segment on prison rape on CBS' "Sixty Minutes."
His advocacy work included authorship of an influential U.S. Supreme Court amicus brief in Farmer v. Brennan outlining the current state of knowledge on prisoner rape. While he lectured widely on this issue, Mr. Donaldson continued his own education. In 1984 he underwent training at St. Vincent's Hospital in New York City as a male rape crisis counselor. He subsequently served as co-chair of the Men's Counselors Group of the Center and organized and chaired the Committee of Male Survivors of Rape as part of New York City's Task Force Against Sexual Assault.
Under Mr. Donaldson's leadership, SPR established a World Wide Web site www.spr.org with information about the organization, including descriptions of his own and others' experiences of prison rape. In April 1996, concerned that his website might be censored under the recently enacted Communications Decency Act, Mr. Donaldson testified as a plaintiff in ACLU v. Reno, the landmark challenge to the CDA. Mr. Donaldson told a three-judge panel in Federal District Court in Philadelphia that the information he provided included "patently offensive" descriptions of prison sexual victimization. If the law were upheld, he told the judges, he would face the threat of jail for refusing to remove what he considered valuable and possibly life-saving information from the Internet. On June 26 of this year the judges ruled in favor of Mr. Donaldson and 19 other plaintiffs, granting a motion for a preliminary injunction against the law. The case is expected to reach the Supreme Court in the October 1996 term.
Mr. Donaldson earned a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Columbia University. He held a presidential appointment as University Seminar Associate at Columbia University, where he lectured on prisoner sexuality. He also lectured at the New York University Law School and Fordham University Law School on prisoner rape, and was a junior author (with Cindy Struckman-Johnson) of "Prison Sexual Coercion," reporting results of a survey of the Nebraska prison system.
Other "firsts" include being the first native-born American ordained in the orthodox (Theravada) Buddhist Order on American Soil , and the first ethnically non-Indian American to be initiated into the Veerashaiva sect of Shaivite Hinduism in Bangalore, India in 1988.
As Donny the Punk, he was also a respected writer and personality in the punk rock and anti-racist skinhead movements.
Mr. Donaldson requested that no funeral services be held. A Quaker memorial meeting will be scheduled after one month. Donations in lieu of flowers may be made to Stop Prisoner Rape.
Mr. Donaldson is survived by his stepmother, Brigitte, by three brothers, Paul, Bruce and Rolf and by his lifetime companion Judith Jones and his lover Tony Santiago.