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The rapists in charge

HIV study reveals disturbing news about prison rape
 
 
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We've often heard the refrain that rape is not about sex, but about power. When it comes to prison culture, that refrain seems especially appropriate.

Last week, the CDC released a study about HIV transmission in Georgia's prison population. Most headlines focused on the somewhat surprising finding that 91 percent of HIV-positive inmates contracted the disease before entering the system. What seemed more telling to me, however, was the info below the fold regarding the incidence of sex reported between corrections officers and inmates. Gay.com reported Saturday:

Besides low HIV transmission rates, the study revealed several other surprises, namely … a high number (37) reporting having consensual sex with corrections officials.

But prisoner rights experts contend that sex between inmates and corrections officials cannot be considered consensual.

"It's inherently coercive because the official has power over the inmate's life in ways that don't exist in the outside world," said Kathy Hall-Martinez, co-director of Stop Prisoner Rape, a national group working to prevent sexual assault behind bars.

Corrections officials control when an inmate eats, sleeps, and whether or not he can bathe or have time outside, Hall Martinez said.

"They control everything about the inmate's daily life, so if an inmate refuses sex there's a great chance it will result in the lowering of the quality of his life," she said. "There is no such thing as consent in that situation."

Certainly, staff-on-inmate rape is not on the top of law enforcement's agenda, and the public isn't clamoring on behalf of inmates. Prison rape is something that is rarely acknowledged or discussed in public life. Most middle-class, law-abiding people feel that this kind of news is irrelevant to them, but even the most minor of offenses and a short stint in jail can be dangerous. Take the case of Stephen Donaldson, the former head of Stop Prisoner Rape. He was arrested for trespassing on White House property during a peace demonstration in 1973. During two days in jail, Donaldson was gang-raped approximately 60 times. He contracted AIDS from the rapes, and died in 1996.

Maria Luisa Tucker is a staff writer at AlterNet and associate editor of the Columbia Journal of American Studies.