The Rape Crisis Behind Bars
By Stephen Donaldson, The New York Times, December 29, 1993

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 by guards.)

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 behind bars.

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 [1993], 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 [1994], 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 death penalty.

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 jails.


For more on this subject, visit the Web site of Stop Prisoner Rape, Inc.

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