Rampant Rape In U.S. Prisons Raises Fears And Questions

By Alan Elsner, National Correspondent
January 18, 2001
Washington, DC

(Copyright © 2001 Reuters Group. PLC. All Rights Reserved.)

In 1997, Robert was arrested for possession of marijuana and taken to the Clark County detention center in Las Vegas where three men raped him in the shower. Now, 18 months out of prison, he is still trying to come to terms with the experience.

“The whole thing was over in five minutes but I’ve been carrying it around ever since. Those five minutes are still hanging over my life,” he said. He has been unable to resume a normal sex life with his wife, is plagued by flashbacks and nightmares and is in group therapy to deal with his problems.

Robert’s experience is all too common in the U.S. prison system, in which more than 2 million people are now incarcerated. Activists, survivors, academics and advocates believe rape is rampant in U.S. jails and prisons, often ignored or even encouraged by authorities, and constitutes one of the world’s great hidden human rights scandals.

Timothy Tucker was arrested for conspiracy to possess cocaine in 1995 and landed up in a federal prison in Virginia. Tucker, who is homosexual and HIV-positive, launched a letter-writing campaign to complain about the lack of medical facilities in the institution.

“They decided I was a pest and put me in a cell with a convicted child pornographer and sexual offender. He weighed 220 pounds and I weighed 140 pounds. He knew I was HIV-positive but he obviously didn’t care. After I was raped, they asked me if I had learned my lesson, then placed me in another unit,” he said.

There are no reliable figures on the incidence of rape in U.S. prisons. But Tom Cahill, who runs “Stop Prisoner Rape, Inc”, a California-based advocacy group, believes there are thousands of such assaults every single day.

With the ever-expanding U.S. prison population and the growing tendency to incarcerate juveniles in adult institutions, the problem may be getting worse.

“Very few are reported because of the tremendous stigma involved and because the life expectancy of a ‘snitch’ behind bars is measured in minutes rather than days,” Cahill said.

“In many cases, the guards let it go on. They would rather have prisoners doing violence to each other than to them. They use it as a management tool,” he said.

Prison rape plays other roles in law enforcement. Police may pressure suspects to plead guilty by threatening to put them in a cell with a rapist. Prison guards use rape as extra punishment for so-called “jailhouse lawyers” or complainers. They may use it to racially divide and rule the prison population.

California psychologist Terry Kupers, who treats many former prisoners, said male rape victims often struggled for years with inner voices saying they were no longer men, that they had been turned into women.

Prisoners say such prisoners had been “turned out.”

Other prison terms: rapists are “pitchers” or “topdogs” and “booty-bandits”; their victims “catchers” or “punks”.

“In prison, it’s considered perfectly manly to rape someone as long as you’re not the one being penetrated,” Kupers said.

The leading cause of death behind bars is suicide and rape may be connected to this as well. In several cases, rape victims have contracted AIDS in prison, where the authorities do not distribute condoms.

“Sex is not allowed within the Virginia prison system, therefore there are no condoms,” said Larry Traylor, spokesman for the Virginia Dept. of Corrections. He acknowledged that sex did occur in prison but maintained it was mainly consensual.

“We’re talking about a prison community of consenting adults. They certainly decide for themselves what is appropriate and what is right,” he said.

Kupers, author or the book, “Prison Madness: The Mental Health Crisis Behind Bars”, dismisses that as nonsense.

“It might appear to be sex between consenting adults. But many men only ‘consent’ to being penetrated out of fear that refusal will lead to worse beatings and rape,” he said.

Women prisoners too are subject to sexual abuse and rape in U.S. prisons, often from staff members and authorities who force them to trade sex for favors.

In 1995, Cassandra Collins, a former nurse, was jailed for six months for passing bad checks in Gadsen County, Florida. She was raped by the county jail administrator, who allowed her to see her children but expected sexual favors in return.

The officer was later removed after several other women, including a female prison officer, complained he had raped or harassed them. “I thought he wanted to help me. He ended up raping me,” Collins said.

Although there are no firm statistics, there are indicators of the dimensions of the problem. In 1994, University of South Dakota psychology professor Cindy Struckman-Johnson surveyed 1,793 inmates in Nebraska prisons and jails and found 22 percent of male inmates and 7 percent of women reported being forced into sexual contact of some kind. More than half of that number said they were victims of anal or vaginal rape.

Struckman-Johnson duplicated those findings in another survey of prisoners in seven Midwestern states last year, finding that 10-12 percent of male respondents had been raped. One fifth of these said they had been sexually abused by staff.

In a 1999 case in Texas, 15 former prisoners testified about a prison system in which weaker inmates were turned into sex slaves or prostitutes and were bought and sold by predators.

Judge William Wayne Justice, ruling that the state prison system should remain under judicial oversight, said it was difficult to believe that in a prison population of more than 140,000, there were only six confirmed cases of sexual assault in 1998. He also decried the lack of reliable statistics concerning inmates’ requests for protection.

“The evidence before the court revealed a prison underworld in which rapes, beatings and servitude are the currency of power. Inmates who refuse to join race-based gangs may be physically or sexually assaulted,” he said, in a ruling now under appeal.

But many in authority deny the problem even exists. “The incidence of rape is blown way out of proportion by the media,” said Brian Dawe of Corrections USA, a pressure group for prison guards. “There are enough willing participants in prison sex. There are a lot of homosexuals and bisexuals and many prisoners don’t regard it as homosexuality when it’s in prison,” he said.

“In my 16 years as a Massachusetts corrections officer, I never came across a single case. It’s not a major issue.”

Lawyers and activists said the problem was particularly severe in southern states such as Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. Some states in other parts of the country made more of an effort to confront the issue.

Vermont Corrections Commissioner John Gorczyk said the most important thing was to separate predators from potential prey and battle prison culture in which drugs and sex are the main currency traded by inmates. “I don’t think prison rape is an epidemic but it certainly happens more frequently than our internal reports reflect,” Gorczyk said.

California therapist Stephen Braveman believes many of his patients exhibited classic signs of post traumatic stress syndrome as a result of their prison experiences.

“They are deeply ashamed but cannot talk about it. They often think it’s their own fault and turn to drugs and alcohol to numb the pain. They may act out their sexual victimization on others or turn to anonymous sex or just shut down sexually. We are talking about thousands and thousands of deeply traumatized men coming out of our prisons back into our society,” he said.