February 5, 2001

February 5, 2001 | Commentary on Crime

ED020501:  Hell Behind Bars: The Crime that Dare not Speak its Name

Prison rape may be America's most ignored crime problem. Since the mid 1970s, male-on-male rape has become more common than male-on-female rape, and a key reason for this is that the prison population has quadrupled. Prison rape tortures inmates, spreads AIDS, and increases the power of racist gangs-but almost nobody wants to talk about it. Academic research suggests that the problem is widespread. University of Nebraska professor Cindy Stuckman-Johnson reported in The Journal of Sex Research that 22 percent of male inmates in Nebraska prisons experienced unwanted sexual contact. Extrapolating from her Nebraska findings and earlier studies in New York, California, and Pennsylvania, Stephen Donaldson, the late president of the activist group Stop Prisoner Rape, estimated that over 240,000 men get raped in prison each year. By contrast, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 1999 men raped 141,000 women.

And while female rape victims typically get raped only once, imprisoned men can get raped thousands of times; physically weak inmates get raped the most. Accounts of prison life by authors such as Harold S. Long and James Hogshire depict a horrible pattern: Prisoners arriving at correctional facilities typically get challenged to a fight within a few days of arrival; those who fight poorly or run away get labeled as "punks" or sex slaves. Punks-usually young, nonviolent offenders, and often pretrial detainees-typically fall victim to a series of gang rapes that may continue for anywhere from a few days to several years. A survival-minded punk eventually settles down to serve a "man" who protects him from other predators in return for regular sex for the man and his friends. In effect, this can amount to daily rape for years on end. Rampant prison overcrowding-which shows only minimal signs of easing-has made this problem even worse: With more men in each cell, it becomes possible for some serial rapists to acquire harems of punks.

Regular group anal sex spreads AIDS very quickly. "AIDS is a major, major threat in prisons, and the fact that any rape may be a death sentence plays up the psychological terror involved in rape," says Terry Kupers, an Oakland psychiatrist who has written extensively about mental health in prisons. Writing in the journal AIDS, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researchers Hazel Dean-Gaitor and Patricia Fleming find that prisoners have nearly six times the AIDS-infection rate of the population as a whole.

Prison rape also carries strong racial overtones. Prison administrators "want to keep the black gangs quiet," says Ginnette West, the mother of a prison-rape victim who runs the small Illinois-based activist group Mothers Against Prison Rape-HIV/AIDS. "They know they'll be in an uproar if they don't get something to release their sex drive, and usually it's young, nonviolent inmates of a different race." The view from the inside is much the same: "The wolves [serial rapists] are almost all black, while punks are almost all white," writes Hogshire in his book, You Are Going to Prison. The white-supremacist gangs that proliferate behind prison bars do the same thing in reverse, seeking out black punks.

Rape serves as a prison-management tool. Racist gangs make things easier for prison administrators: They spend so much time fighting one another that they don't turn against staff. Rape often serves as a form of punishment for those who threaten to disrupt the flow of drugs and other contraband that the gangs control in most prison systems. Indeed, prison administrators sometimes facilitate rapes: A 1998 Los Angeles Times investigation of brutality in California's Corcoran State Prison found that guards sometimes sent troublesome prisoners to live with one man, who raped inmates in return for favors from prison staff. Such practices are common. "I've heard about prisons where they always make sure there is one [punk] per tier as a safety valve for the population," says Ken Haas, a professor at the University of Delaware who coedited the widely used anthology The Dilemmas of Corrections.

A code of silence that nearly all prison inmates adhere to means that prison rape almost never gets reported. "This silence spares cost-conscious prison officials the expense and burden of investigating and prosecuting incidents of prison rape," writes Victor Hassine, a convicted murderer turned college-textbook writer who has spent the last twenty years in a variety of Pennsylvania state prisons. "Rapists are thus virtually handed licenses for their attacks."

Although nobody defends prison rape in public or even denies that it poses a problem, reform efforts rarely succeed. Tom Cahill, a self-described "full-time radical-Left activist" and prison-rape victim who now heads Stop Prisoner Rape, complains that mainstream human-rights groups shun the issue of male-on-male rape. "Amnesty International asked me to speak for them a few years ago, and all they wanted me to talk about was women being raped by male guards," he says. "Rape is a problem, but it's not the dominant one for women behind bars. For men, it's an enormous issue."

Cal Skinner, a conservative who supports harsher criminal penalties and more prison construction, believes that his 16 years in the Illinois House ended with a primary defeat last fall in part because he devoted so much time to meeting with prisoners and pushing anti-prison-rape legislation. "Convicted criminals aren't the most popular people with conservative voters in a conservative district," he explains. Although the Illinois prison system did issue new regulations aimed at stemming prison rape in the wake of Skinner's efforts, his more ambitious bills to crack down on prison rape never made it to the floor of the legislature. Similar single-legislator crusades fizzled in Delaware and Florida, as did the efforts of Sens. Edward Kennedy and Barbara Boxer to establish a select committee on the issue. To the public, prison rape has become a joke: Films like The Naked Gun 33 1/3 and the Norm MacDonald movie Dirty Work make light comedy out of rape behind bars. Similar jokes about any other violent crime would draw loud protests from politicians and advocacy groups.

Michael J. Horowitz, a Hudson Institute scholar who has led human-rights crusades against the sex-slave trade and the persecution of Christians, proposes federal standards to prevent prison rape. "There is not a single major private group that accredits prisons that sets standards for preventing rape," says Horowitz. "This is a serious human-rights crisis." If Horowitz's efforts gain traction, San Francisco's protocols-in place since 1975-might become a national model. In San Francisco jails, weak-looking, effeminate, or transsexual offenders are separated from other prisoners. Inmates who fall victim to rape get moved into protected areas screened to keep out potential rapists. Even in San Francisco, however, not everything works perfectly. "Rape still goes on in our system," admits assistant sheriff Michael Marcum. "But we have some facilities where I feel comfortable saying that it doesn't go on at all."

People go to jail because society wants to punish them; but the punishments of prison rape seem manifestly at odds with commonly accepted standards of justice. Jailhouse rapists select victims from the least violent segments of the prison population. And even the most dangerous prisoners hardly deserve the real threat of death from AIDS. The success of the reform efforts will depend on whether the public is willing to recognize that even convicted offenders have fundamental human rights-and that condoning repeated violations of those rights serves no legitimate public purpose.

Eli Lehrer is visiting fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

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Originally published in National Review (02/05/01)