The Human Rights of Jail
Philip Smith, DRCNet
May 1, 2001
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 released this week 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 week, 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 told DRCNet. "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
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 ^A'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
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 <http://www.igc.org/spr/> 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 spoke with Cahill earlier this week. Here are excerpts from that
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 policy intersect with prison
Tom Cahill: I credit the war on drugs with the tremendous increase in
prisoner rape. Most prison rape victims are in for minor nonviolent
offenses. The victim profile is a young adult heterosexual male, maybe
small or with a slight frame, confined for the first time for a minor
victimless crime such as possession of a little too much marijuana and too
poor to buy his freedom. I never heard of an affluent prisoner being raped,
but then you never 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 U.S.
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
to northern California, who said he had FBI files of number of U.S.
activists. He read 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 the rape. Another memo from
San Antonio to DC, this one a month after the rape, 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 through a decade of homelessness, I lost my portrait studio
business. It has taken all 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 the
only 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
have been 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 sex
than of violence and humiliation.
Prison rapists were often raped or sexually abused earlier in life. This is
a cycle of violence. It used to be called homosexual rape, but we felt that
was really a misnomer that only fueled homophobia. Rapists in prison are
overwhelmingly 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
murderer is 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 U.S. 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
Dillard at the Corcoran unit. Then it is used to divide prisoners along
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. He was
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
It is also used to destroy potential leaders among prisoners and to
neutralize 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
stop prison rape."
Is rape inevitable in a prison setting?
Cahill: Prison rape can be easily and inexpensively curbed. I invite you to
look 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
vulnerable and 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.
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