Does sex really occur in prison? And is it just rape, as the federal government would like to believe, or also consensual?
In 2003, the Prison Rape Reduction Act was signed into law. It required federal, state and local governments to work with the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics to study the number and effects of incidents of sexual assault in correctional facilities and hopefully provide accurate data for the first time on the actual number of incidents.
That year, the Congressional Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security held hearings “to examine the issue of sexual assault within federal, state, and local correctional institutions and actions that are to be taken to address the issue.”
Many revelations came out of that hearing. Of over two million people incarcerated today, it is estimated that one in ten, or roughly 200,000, have been raped. Rape is recognized as a contributing factor to prison homicide, violence against staff and institutional riots. Not only does it cause severe physical and psychological trauma to victims, it increases the transmission of HIV/AIDS, other sexually transmitted diseases, tuberculosis and hepatitis B and C, all of which exist at very high rates within U.S. prisons and jails. Juveniles have a 20% chance of being sexually abused while incarcerated.
Testimony revealed inmates victimized by prison rapes are more likely to commit crimes when they are released. Inmates, often nonviolent, first-time offenders, come out of prison rape experiences severely traumatized. The high incidence of rape within prison also leads to increased transmission of HIV, hepatitis and other diseases outside of prison, which in turn imposes threats and costs to all of society.
Since enactment of the Prison Rape Reduction Act, Congress formed a commission and has held hearings all across the country.
What prompted the federal government to undertake a study of sexual abuse in prisons?
In 2001, Human Rights Watch produced a sobering report- No Escape: Male Rape in U.S Prisons. No Escape is a comprehensive overview of the scope of the problem and made recommendations to the U.S. Congress, The Civil Rights Division of the Justice Dept., the National Institute of Corrections, State Depts. of Corrections, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and state and local prosecutors.
For those who are in denial, Human Rights Watch conducted 200 interviews with inmates from 40 prisons across the country who spoke of the horror. An inmate in New York wrote: “When a man finally gets his victim, he protects him from everyone else, buys him anything, the victim washes his clothes, his cell etc. In return, the entire prison knows that this guy has a “Bitch” or “girl.” I’ve seen inmates attacked by two or three men at a time and forced to the floor while three men hold him down the fourth rapes him. I’ve known two men who have hung themselves after this.”
Another story from No Escape: “I had no choice but to submit to being Inmate B’s prison wife. Out of fear for my life, I submitted to sex, and performing other duties as a woman, such as making his bed. In all reality, I was his slave.”
And yet another: “Most of the prisoners who rape are spending 5 to life. And are a part of a gang. They look for a smaller, weaker individual. And make that person into a homosexual, then sell him to other inmates of gangs. Anywhere from a pack of cigarettes to 2 cartons. . . . No one cares about you or anyone else. If they show kindness or are trying to be helpful, it is only because they want something. And if they are offering you protection, you can guarantee that they are going to seek sexual favors. . . . When an inmate comes in for the first time and doesn’t know anyone. The cliques and gangs watch him like wolves readying their attacks. They see if he spends time alone, who he eats with. It’s like the Wild Kingdom. Then they start playing with him, checking the new guy out. (They call him fresh meat.)”
And another: “I was raped in prison from Feb. 1991 through Nov. 1991. From that, it left me H.I.V. -Positive.”
No Escape focuses on male inmate-to-inmate sexual violence, excluding incidents between corrections officials and issues with women inmates, which was the focus of a 1996 report entitled All Too Familiar: Sexual Abuse of Women in U.S. State Prisons.
No Escape reports “Prisoners may find themselves becoming another inmate’s ‘property.’ Forced to satisfy another man’s sexual appetites whenever he demands, they may also be responsible for washing his clothes, massaging his back, cooking his food, cleaning his cell and myriad other chores. They are frequently ‘rented out’ for sex, sold or even auctioned off to other inmates, replicating the financial aspects of traditional slavery. Their most basic choices, like how to dress and whom to talk to, may be controlled by the person who ‘owns’ them. Their name may be replaced by a female one. Like all forms of slavery, these situations are among the most degrading and dehumanizing experiences a person can undergo.” In addition, “Rape in prison can be almost unimaginably vicious and brutal. Gang assaults are not uncommon, and victims may be left beaten, bloody and, in the most extreme cases, dead.”
Inmate perpetrators of sexual violence do not consider themselves to be engaging in homosexual activity, even though, by definition, it is. Both victimizers and the victimized generally consider themselves heterosexual. Dr. Divine Pryor, associate director of the NuLeadership Center at Medgar Evers College, a think tank working on criminal justice issues, when asked if rape goes on in prison, he said that sex is so common and casual in prison that much of it is mis-characterized rape. Some engage in consensual same-sex activity because they are lonely. Others participate because it is the only available outlet for sexual tension. Dr. Pryor says, “Gay for the stay” is what the men call it and do not consider themselves homosexual and they look for heterosexual experiences upon release.
The variety of means by which male inmates are sexually abused include coerced consent, violent or forcible assaults, coerced sexual abuse, slavery and imposition of power.
The psychological impact is pervasive. Once raped, inmates become trapped into a sexually subordinate role and become an object of sexual abuse. Shame at the “loss of manhood”, depression, anxiety and despair, suicide, anger and perpetuation of the cycle of violence are some symptoms. Other effects of prison rape are post-traumatic stress syndrome, rape trauma syndrome and the Stockholm Syndrome, when a traumatic bond is formed with the victim’s captors- who are not prison guards, but instead, cell mates. (One inmate testified about fantasies of returning back to prison for more sexual abuse. Is this why recidivism is so high?) Prisoners often harbor intense feelings of anger directed first at the perpetrators of abuse, but also at prison authorities who failed to react appropriately to protect them, and even at society as a whole. Some prisoners have confessed to taking violent revenge on their abusers, inspired both by anger and by a desire to escape further abuse.
The all-to-common occurrences of sexual abuse in prison leads to serious physical injury, which are not adequately addressed, or even taken seriously, by corrections officials. Opportunities for obtaining medical evidence for possible future prosecution are missed. Inmates who take the risk of retaliation by reporting rape are told corrections does not get involved with “lover’s quarrels” and are counseled to “deal with it”.
A wide variety of sexually transmitted diseases are transmitted and go untreated.
Compounding the problem is callous indifference within the justice system. “Few local prosecutors are concerned with prosecuting crimes committed against inmates, preferring to leave internal prison problems to the discretion of the prison authorities; similarly, prison officials themselves rarely push for the prosecution of prisoner-on-prisoner abuses. As a result, perpetrators of prison rape almost never face criminal charges.” As long as the incidents take place behind bars, and the public is not affected, local district attorneys are unconcerned because inmates do not vote them into office.
There is also a lack of honest inmate orientation. One inmate testified: “I have been to 4 Ohio prisons and at no time was I ever warned about the danger of sexual assault. No one ever told me of ways to protect myself. And to this day, I’ve never heard of a procedure for reporting rape. This is never talked about.”
Very few states, including Virginia and Arkansas, provide information to inmates on how to avoid sexual aggression when entering prison. Virginia issues a handbook that includes “How to Avoid Homosexual Intimidation,” with warnings such as ‘don’t get into debt,’ and ‘don’t solicit or accept favors, property or drugs.’
Many groups have been advocating on behalf of inmates regarding the issue of inmate-to-inmate prison rape. Stop Prison Rape is a national human rights organization that seeks to end sexual violence in all forms of detention.
The AIDS Community Research Initiative of America released a report titled Prison Health = Public Health: HIV Care in New York State Prisons, and made numerous recommendations to the NYS Dept. of Corrections and former governor Pataki, who refused to provide condoms within prisons. The Prison Committee of ACT- UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) produced No Time To Lose: HIV/ AIDS and Hepatitis C in New York State’s Prisons. The NYS Defenders Association’s prisoners rights division has numerous links on its Web site addressing prison issues. The Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons produced Confronting Confinement in 2006, connecting what happens inside with the health and safety of our communities. The report states: “What happens inside jails and prisons does not stay inside jails and prisons. It comes home with prisoners after they are released and with correction officers at the end of each day’s shift.” Even Clarence Thomas, for once, got it right. He wrote a concurring opinion in the 1994 Farmer v. Brennan, when the Supreme Court held that deliberate indifference to the risk of prison rape violates the 8th and 14th amendment to the United States Constitution.
What seems to be missing is coordinated advocacy from the group impacted the most- Black current and formerly incarcerated men. Gay men who enter prison remain gay when they are released. Heterosexual men who experience inmate-to-inmate sexual violence while in prison come home to unsuspecting women and the community with myriad mental and physical issues. Formerly incarcerated (and other) men who are living ‘in the closet’ or ‘on the down low’ waste their political power when they do not even advocate for themselves and what they need. The informal policy of ‘don’t snitch’ doesn’t help and is counterproductive. The whole community pays with the unchecked spread of HIV/ AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases as well as the relationship chaos created by untreated mental trauma caused by prison rape.