Rape of Teens in Adult Prisons So Common, the State Made a Video on How to Avoid It

A horrifying new story from the Marshall Project tells the story of John, a 17-year-old, 140-pound inmate in Michigan, who was raped by his 200-pound cellmate after being housed in an adult prison. It was not the last time he would be sexually assaulted. The piece is titled, "A Boy Among Men: What happens when you throw a teenager into an adult prison? Guess.”

John was repeatedly victimized, and permanently traumatized. His ordeal is not unusual for younger inmates, especially in states—and there are many of them—where strict laws have been passed to try juveniles as adults. The younger inmates become prime pickings for prison predators.

Twelve years after the passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003, the horror of prison rape has not been eliminated. Inmates under 18 in adult prisons are said to be five times more likely to be attacked than their peers in juvenile facilities. Worse, prison guards are sometimes complicit in these rapes and are sometimes even the perpetrators.

In an official acknowledgement that rape is a widespread reality of prison life, the state of New York will soon release a video series titled, How To Avoid Rape In Prison, intended to help new inmates avoid being raped, according to the Marshall ProjectOne is for male inmates and another for female inmatesDozens of inmates and prison officials were interviewed for them. While the videos are meant to be helpful, they seem like admissions of failure. Since rape can happen even when one does all the right things to avoid it, the videos also inform inmates about their rights in case they are sexually assaulted.

The videos are funded by a federal grant from the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) and directed by T.J. Parsell, a former prisoner who was a victim of rape while serving time more than 30 years ago. In the men’s video, Parsell recounts how he had not been in prison 24 hours before his drink was spiked with Thorazine and he was lured into an empty cell and gang-raped. He was only 17 at the time.  

“I’m telling you this because I don’t want this to happen to you,” Parsell says, looking into the camera. “I was in prison over 30 years ago. And things have changed a lot since then. The purpose of this video is not to scare you but to help you do your time more safely.”

Inmates offer tips on how to avoid predatory inmates and staff. Some warn viewers never to accept gifts from inmates or staff, as they will certainly want something in return. Tips on how to behave in the shower (keep your underwear on) or how to tell if a weight-lifting partner is making sexual advances are also offered. Several inmates suggest that violent rape is less the norm these days, while manipulation and “grooming” are more common. (John was "courted" with letters before being forcibly raped.)

An inmate warns that prison “mothers” try to take advantage of female inmates who may feel guilty about leaving their families.

Another female inmate says,” I believe that my appearance automatically makes a predator feel that I’m fair game because I like women, so they don’t have to try as hard.” 

A male inmate in another video says, “I have an effeminate voice with effeminate attributes, even though I am a straight male. So I feared that I would have problems.” 

(No trans gender inmates appear in either of video, though they are known to be a target for prison rape.)

New York doesn’t have a very good track record of curbing prison rape. In 2010, three of the 11 prisons in the U.S. with the most staff-on-inmate violence were in New York, according to PREA surveys cited by the Marshall Project.

The release of these videos will certainly spark lively debate on whether New York’s prison system, and others across the country, are dealing effectively with prison rape. No doubt they are full of good advice for staying as safe as possible under terrible conditions. The problem is that the videos don't question the underlying problem: that minors who end up in adult prisons are at high risk of being raped.


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