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The Human Rights of Jail

A recent Human Right Watch report on male rape in prisons could finally force policy-makers and the public to confront the epidemic.

The belief that male prisoners are raped by other prisoners is so common as to qualify for status as an urban myth. If only that were the case. A report recently released by Human Rights Watch, "No Escape: Male Rape in U.S. Prisons," shows in sometimes excruciating detail that the sexual abuse of male prisoners by other prisoners is pervasive in American jails and prisons, and that prison officials are turning a blind eye to it.

The report could finally force policy-makers and the public to confront the epidemic of prison rape that has been building for years. Until now, while prisoners and their defenders complained in vain, the unsavory subject has been ignored by the press, denied by authorities and sniggered at by late night comedians. While talk show hosts make jokes and politicians make excuses, American prisoners are raped by the tens of thousands, perhaps the hundreds of thousands, each year.

But earlier this month, major media outlets prodded by Human Rights Watch ran with the story. ABC News ran a tough, three-night series on its evening news, in which anchorman Peter Jennings pronounced prison rape an "epidemic," while the New York Times jumped on board with a major Sunday story, "Little Sympathy or Remedy for Inmates Who Are Raped," which opened with a prison rape scene certain to have disturbed the Sunday brunch appetites of its readers.

Based on correspondence from over 200 prisoners, inmate interviews, reviews of the literature on prison rape and a national survey of corrections systems, Human Rights Watch reports that rape is "widespread" behind bars in the U.S. Citing surveys of guards and inmates, the group reported "shocking" rates of prison rape: A 1968 Philadelphia study found 3 percent, a 1982 California study reported 14 percent; 11 percent in Nebraska in 1996, and last year, in a study of prisons in four midwestern states, the Prison Journal found 7 percent. Correctional officers surveyed anonymously put the figure at 20 percent. Interestingly, line guards gave higher estimates than prison officials. These numbers are for anal rape only; when oral rape or other unwanted sexual contact is included it seems likely that somewhere between one-quarter and one-third of prisoners have either endured or fended off sexual attack in U.S. prisons.

With nearly two million people behind bars in this country, the scope of this crime is enormous. At a 3 percent rape rate among male prisoners, that is 54,000 prisoners raped every year. That is the lowball figure. If 10 percent are raped in jail or prison each year, nearly 200,000 prisoners are being subjected to humiliating and often brutal attacks while in the custody of the state.

It doesn't have to be that way, says Human Rights Watch. "Rape is in no way an inevitable consequence of incarceration," said Joanne Mariner, deputy director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch and author of the report. "But it is a predictable one if prison and prosecutorial authorities do little to prevent and punish it."

Accusing prison authorities of "deliberate indifference" to prison rape, the report found that no state surveyed showed abuse rates anywhere near those reported by guards and prisoners and that half of the state prison systems did not even keep statistics on inmate-on-inmate rapes. Nebraska, where 11 percent of prisoners reported being raped, said its prevalence was minimal. New Mexico reported "no recorded instances over the past few years." Only Texas, California and Florida reported more than 50 rapes in the last year, but these numbers are infinitesimal given the size of their respective prison populations.

The human rights group also criticized prison guards and the broader criminal justice system. "Human Rights Watch found that correctional staff frequently ignore or even react hostilely to inmates' complaints of rape," said Mariner. "Another important contributing factor to the prison rape crisis is the failure of the criminal justice system to address these crimes. "Perpetrators of prison rape rarely face criminal charges, even when rape is accompanied by extreme physical violence."

Part of the reason for the criminal justice system's failure is the result of decisions made by Congress to limit prisoners' ability to sue for relief. The 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act, seemingly perversely designed to facilitate abuses within prisons, made it far more difficult for prisoners to sue over their conditions of confinement. That same year, Congress also barring the Federal Legal Services Corporation from legal aid organizations that represent prisoners, reducing the pool of legal talent available to work on behalf on inmates.

"Prison rape is part of the mythology of prison life. But in reality, it is devastating human rights abuse that can and should be prevented," said Mariner. In a detailed series of recommendations, the report shows state and prison authorities steps they can take to reduce "this gross violation of human dignity."

Nora Callahan of the drug war prisoner support group the November Coalition didn't need a human rights report to find out about rape in prison. "It's part of prison life," she said. "We deal with it every day. We get lists of prisoners who have been raped. We hear about young men who get raped and get AIDS. For these men, being sentenced to prison is a death sentence."

According to Human Rights Watch, "the threat of HIV transmission is particularly acute given the high prevalence of the virus among prisoners." The study reported nearly 20,000 prisoners with HIV/AIDS in 1997 and that AIDS is currently the second leading cause of death among prison inmates.

"We have nonviolent people surrounded by violent people -- guards and prisoners -- and the humiliation is daily," said Callahan. "You can't put people in a system that treats them worse than you treat animals and not expect predatory behavior. It's like a real life version of 'Survivor.' It's America's entertainment. You think they'd be horrified about it, but no."

Eric Sterling, executive director of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, pointed out that prisoners are often ignored, if not actively despised, by society at large. "We do a sort of mental gymnastics thinking about prisoners," he told DRCNet. "Everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty, but once they are convicted, members of Congress and the public at large mentally move them outside the human community."

Like Callahan, Sterling professed not the least surprise at the Human Rights Watch report. What he does find striking is "the unwillingness of legislators to confront the reality of prison rape in their thinking about punishment and sentencing. "All members of the legislature should be required to tour prisons under their control at least every couple of years," said Sterling. "Every judge should go into the prisons to which he is sentencing prisoners and have opportunities for frank discussions about conditions. This would be an important step. A great problem of governance is that policymakers are often far removed from the consequences of their actions."

But, Sterling added, prison "rape factories" may address a dark need for revenge. "I suspect there are those who are perfectly comfortable with the idea of rape in prison," he said. "If we perceive those we send to prison as predators, then we think in a sort of Code of Hammurabi sense that they deserve to be preyed upon themselves."

"We incarcerate to protect ourselves and to punish those who need punishment," Sterling continued, "but the number of offenders we need to protect ourselves from is relatively small. The number of people we incarcerate because we are mad at them is much greater. Part of that is because we have a very impoverished idea of options for punishment. There are many ways to change people's behavior without putting them in prison."

The Human Rights Watch report is available on line.

Interview: Tom Cahill, President of Stop Prisoner Rape

Stop Prisoner Rape is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to combating the rape of prisoners and providing assistance to the survivors of jailhouse rape. The group's founder, Russell D. Smith (who vanished in the early 1980s), and its past and current presidents, Steven Donaldson and Tom Cahill, all were victims of jail gang-rapes. Donaldson, who died in 1998, were both jailed for protesting the war in Vietnam.

SPR works with limited resources to educate prisoners, corrections officials, the media and the public about the epidemic of sexual assault and enslavement hidden behind prison walls. It works with lawyers filing damage claims for survivors and class action lawsuits against unresponsive institutions. SPR also provides resources on how to prevent prison rape for prisoners, and how to cope with it if one is a victim.

We recently spoke with Cahill. Here are excerpts from that conversation:

We've got hundreds of thousands of people in prison on drug charges and many more who have been incarcerated in prison, in county jails, or even short-term in local lock-ups. How does drug policyintersect with prison rape?

Tom Cahill: I credit the war on drugs with the tremendous increase inprisoner rape. Most prison rape victims are in for minor nonviolent offenses. The victim profile is a young adult heterosexual male, maybe small or with aslight frame, confined for the first time for a minor victimless crime such aspossession of a little too much marijuana -- and too poor to buy his freedom. I never heard of an affluent prisoner being raped, but then younever hear about them being executed either.

As for drugs, we should decriminalize all of them immediately. This epidemic of prison rape is just one more way the war on drugs is causing much more harm than the drugs themselves. These men and boys who are raped in prison will usually return to the community far more violent and antisocial than before they were raped. Some of them will perpetuate the vicious cycle by becoming rapists themselves in a misguided attempt to "regain their manhood" in the same manner in which they believe it was "lost."

If pot were decriminalized and people could grow it, maybe it would decrease the hard drug use. Some folks like to talk about the gateway theory, but I say if there is a gate, it swings both ways. I've seen many people using hard drugs, especially alcohol, improve their lives by using pot instead. And they want to throw you in prison for it? I think there should be restitution for all people arrested for pot, or at least users and small dealers and growers. The criminal justice system in this country is truly criminal.

It's my firm belief that this war on drugs has nothing to do with public health; instead it is about social control. The Nixonian version helped to neutralize the New Left, and ever since the drug war has been used to control "the dangerous classes" -- blacks, hispanics, the poor, young countercultures and dissident tendencies.

And I have to look at the CIA's record and wonder. They're always involved, aren't they? In Marseilles with the mob in the '50s, in Southeast Asia with the opium hill tribes in the '60s, with those Contras and their cocaine in the'80s, huge increases in opium production in Afghanistan while they helped fight the Russians. This is a government that wants to stop drug use?

How did you get involved in an issue like this?

Cahill: It happened to me. I was involved in anti-war activism in San Antonio during the Vietnam War. It was 1968, and San Antonio, with all its military bases and retirees, was not a friendly place for dissidents. Worse yet, I was a member of Veterans for Peace; a lot of people considered us traitors. I was jailed for civil disobedience.

The jailers put me in a 24-bed cell with 30 guys, mainly black and hispanic, with three white guys, two cowering in the back. The third white guy was retarded and maybe criminally insane. He was the leader of the guys who raped me. The jailers told them I was a short eyes -- a child molester -- and that if they took care of me they would get extra rations of jello.

This went on for 24-hours, until one of my Hispanic activist friends, an ex-con with friends in the jail, heard through the grapevine that I was being "turned out." He got word back into the cell block vouching for me, and the rapes stopped on a dime. The leader of the blacks forced a black kid to give me his bunk after that. Made him sleep on the floor.

I found out later that that overcrowded cell block had been created only hours earlier, taking prisoners from other cell blocks that weren't even full. I was in there a week before being transferred and while I wasn't jail savvy, I knew enough to keep my mouth shut. Snitches don't last long. I didn't cry out for the guards. I told a visiting attorney my wounds and bruises were only an initiation; I told a priest the same thing.

Ten years later, I got a call from a journalist in San Antonio -- I had moved tonorthern California -- who said he had FBI files of number of U.S. activists. Heread to me a portion of a memo that referred to me and my sister, a Catholic nun also active in the anti-war movement. I filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the files, and after two years and the help of Sen. Alan Cranston, I got them, 350 pages worth. These were COINTELPRO files, from the FBI's counter-subversive program.

Two of the memos indicate the FBI may have set me up because of my anti-war activities. One memo from the San Antonio FBI office to Washington was suggesting ways to neutralize me a month before therape. Another memo from San Antonio to DC, this one a month after therape, took credit for driving my sister and me out of San Antonio.

I was only raped for 24 hours. I consider myself a minor victim. I didn't fit the profile; I was older, I was married, more comfortable with my sexual identity. But it has wreaked havoc with my life. I went through a divorce, went througha decade of homelessness, I lost my portrait studio business. It has takenall these years to heal. I see a psychiatrist, a psychotherapist, an acupuncturist. I take Paxil. I've devoted much of my time to healing, which is why I'm still alive.

But for many guys the humiliation is too much and they commit suicide. Or they become beasts. Martyrs or monsters. But I've worked through the humiliation; it's not mine, it belongs to society, and especially to the lawmakers that allow this to continue. I've cost the taxpayers $150,000 since 1987, when the Veterans Administration diagnosed me with post-traumatic stress disorder. I'm permanently disabled and probably theonly male in the country getting a pension for rape trauma syndrome, because there wasn't any other trauma.

Why is this crime ignored or joked about instead of eliminated?

Cahill: The simple reason is that the victims as well as prison officials havebeen complicit with their rapists. There is tremendous fear and humiliation. Researchers find that few women report rapes; the percentage is even lower among men, especially in prison where the life expectancy of a snitch can be measured in minutes. And many prisoners being so young, 18 or 20 or 22, they are also confused sexually, they think "Maybe I'm gay." While gays are often raped, I have never heard of a gay rapist behind bars, and being raped doesn't make you gay. Rape in general is less an act of sexthan of violence and humiliation.
Prison rapists were often raped or sexually abused earlier in life. This is acycle of violence. It used to be called homosexual rape, but we felt that was really a misnomer that only fueled homophobia. Rapists in prison areoverwhelmingly heterosexual. I'm sure every one of my rapists was straight. For all these years, the guards could say that sex behind bars was consensual. That's the opposite of the truth.

Surely you're not blaming the victim here?

Cahill: Not at all. I blame the U.S. criminal justice system and that includes all those who make and interpret and enforce the laws. I blame them for scapegoating prisoners who are mostly poor. I blame them for using crime as a smokescreen for their much greater crimes. The worst mass murdereris not as bad as some of these politicians who support corporations who pollute and manufacture arms. They're worse than Manson.

And the American public. I think Americans care more about their bank accounts than each other, and they allow themselves to be easily led astray. In recent years, I stopped trying to appeal to the conscience of American voters and taxpayers on the grounds of justice or human rights or civi lrights. Now I've started trying to show them how prison rape is costing them big bucks. I have an economist and statistician trying to put a price tag on it. How much it costs in increased violence, recidivism, increasing successful lawsuits, as well as health care.

For years, we've been appealing to senators to investigate prison rape or prohibit prison rape, but they just shined us on. There are several sitting senators who know, who have known for years, that this is going on. Teddy Kennedy was on a prison abuse select committee in the '70s. He knows. Arlen Specter was the Philadelphia DA who prosecuted that city's jailhouse rape scandal in the late '60s. And I've been after Barbara Boxer since the mid-'80s. I'm really upset with Kennedy, Boxer, and Specter because of this.

The Human Rights Watch report accuses prison administrations of callous. indifference to prison rape, but does it go beyond indifference?

Cahill: Oh, yes, it can serve the purposes of the state in many ways. Our martyr, Steven Donaldson, was the first one to use the term "rape as a management tool." First, the threat of prison rape is used by detectives to coerce suspects into plea bargaining. In prison itself, rape is ed as extra punishment for jailhouse lawyers and troublemakers such as Eddie Dillardat the Corcoran unit. Then it is used to divide prisoners along racial lines.

A good example is John William King, one of the three men who dragged Alvin Byrd, a black man, to his death in Texas. A few years before that, Williams was in the Beto unit of the Texas Department of Corrections. Hewas described by friends and neighbors as a Texas good ol' boy, not hating blacks. The Aryan Brotherhood wanted to recruit him, but he resisted, so the Brotherhood got a sympathetic white guard to place him in a cellblock full of Bloods, where he was raped. King came out a monster, which is all too common. He joined the Brotherhood, he got the tattoos. Now he's on Death Row.

It is also used to destroy potential leaders among prisoners and toneutralize left-wing dissidents like Donaldson and me. Donaldson was also a Veteran for Peace. I've never heard of it being used as a tool against rightist prisoners, because the guards are rightists. You don't get too many left-wing prison guards. And it is used as entertainment by the guards; they set up rapes because they were bored, just like they set up fights. Then administrators have the gall to go to the legislatures and say, "We need more appropriations, more guards, more guns, more cameras to stopprison rape."

Is rape inevitable in a prison setting?

Cahill: Prison rape can be easily and inexpensively curbed. I invite you tolook at what Sheriff Hennessey has done in San Francisco. For more than 20 years, he has had a protocol -- the San Francisco protocol -- designed specifically to reduce inmate rape. And it works. Rape in the San Francisco jail is a rare occurrence. He has designed the jail to increase visibility. He has trained the staff to be more vigilant, he separates the obviously nonviolent from the obvious predators. Male or female nurses interview each prisoner to see if they can handle themselves or if they're vulnerableand then assign them accordingly.

I've seen it myself -- from the inside. I've been a guest there a few times over the years for my civil disobedience. We plan to give Sheriff Hennessey our Steven Donaldson Award for outstanding achievement in this area. These sheriffs and jail administrators and wardens must have an annual convention where they compare notes. More need to follow his lead. More need to be pressured to do so. It's what's right.