SEXUAL ASSAULT IN PRISON: THE NUMBERS ARE FAR FROM FUNNY
by Jason Mallory
On a popular College Station radio commercial, an announcer advertising bail bonds facetiously implies that if one has the misfortune to end up in prison, one might want to consider posting bond instead of suffering the abuse of "Roscoe," a stereotypical love-starved inmate, who would enjoy nothing more than to "befriend" a new, young cell mate.
While one might find some humor in this caricature of life in prison, the reality that there is sexual mistreatment that occurs daily in any given prison population (including jails) is scarcely to be seen as a laughable matter. Although an exact number of those who are regularly sexually assaulted has not been ascertained, according to one conservative estimate, there are more than 300,000 males sexually abused annually in U. S. prisons. Unless otherwise noted, this and other statistics are from the research available on the Stop Prison Rape, Inc. website: www.spr.org. Seeking a more neutral source for statistical information, there were found to be surprisingly few existing references for sociological or psychological studies researching this issue specifically. Although there appears to be no shortage of economic and theoretical books written about correctional institutions and criminology, there seems to be a deficit in the literature germane to prison abuse as a societal ill. (The few studies that were found to have been done can be found on the SPR website.) Even mainstream human rights organizations such as Amnesty International appear currently to offer no detailed information or even to take a formal position in regard to prison rape as such, or on prison conditions within U.S. boundaries.
The number of prison rapes can be compared with the estimated 135,000 female sexual assaults that occur outside of prison walls every year. The causes which lead an individual into an environment conducive to sexual assaults are without question complex; however, according to the literature, broad generalizations--while keeping their inherent weaknesses in mind--can be made. For instance, the power structure within male prisons are quite dissimilar or non-existent compared with those exclusively housing females; male prisons view coercive sex both as a means to exert one's aggressive dominance in the hierarchy of power as well as a sexual outlet; female prisons tend to lack the explicit display of the power hierarchy, which in turn, can effect the meanings that are placed in sexual acts.
While the victimization of even a single person is more than sufficient grounds for moral outrage, the rapes and other abuses suffered by thousands of those incarcerated has not garnered the media attention or public sympathy it deserves in proportion to its occurrence.
A Victim Speaks Out
There is at least one courageous soul, however, who strove to educate the public and government officials about the injustices in today's prisons. Stephen Donaldson, the past president of Stop Prisoner Rape, Inc., is the first survivor of jailhouse rape to come forward publicly to describe the abuse he underwent in a penitentiary that had brazenly failed to protect his rights. Donaldson, while serving a brief jail term for taking part in a non-violent Quaker protest (of the government's bombing of Cambodia), was brutally gang-raped over 60 times in the span of two days. Due to the severity of the attacks, he subsequently underwent rectal surgery after his release from prison.
Unfortunately, Donaldson later discovered he had been infected with HIV during the prison attacks and eventually died from AIDS-related complications. Donaldson's death is not just another call to action to acknowledge the AIDS pandemic; one must confront the human rights abuses of all segments of our population--even those who are paying back their "debt to society." As Donaldson detailed in his books and pamphlets, the threat of gang-rape can be ever present for vulnerable inmates, so it is not uncommon that alternative arrangements are made to minimize the risk.
A Less Than Ideal Alternative To Rape
To avoid sexual victimization, one practice, in particular, is popularly adopted: a weaker individual "hooks up" with a stronger, protective individual who will ensure the former's safety in exchange for sexual favors. Once someone has been raped within the prison community, it becomes especially important that this type of relationship be established. When an individual is raped even on a single occasion, he is stigmatized and liable to be raped innumerable times unless he assents to such a relationship with another man, namely to serve in the subservient role of "punk," (i.e., sex slave), to a dominating and superior "man," (i.e., one or more persons who will, in turn, provide protection against further abuse).
Donaldson published the pamphlet, Hooking Up: Protective Pairing for Punks, speaking to this issue and offers advice to the newly incarcerated on the means to acquiring a decent "man." Despite the ostensible security one receives in this agreement, one risks the degradation of one's self image as masculine and may feel compelled to repeat the cycle of abuse to regain one's "manhood." It should be noted that most "punks" and "men," despite their overt behavior, are avowed heterosexuals--and view their sexual behavior as such--and usually re-adopt behavior consistent with this orientation after release from prison. As indicative of this mindset, the "punk's" sexual organs are often named using words appropriate to female anatomy.
But Don't They Deserve It?
Some might object that those in jail deserve whatever unfortunate consequences might be encountered--be it abuse from guards, other inmates, or the stress of the confinement situation itself. Even if one takes the primary purpose of prisons to be that of retribution, one is nevertheless reminded of the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution forbidding performance of "cruel and unusual" punishment. The fact that one must suffer the indignities of sexual servitude to another individual as the only means to avoid multiple rapes surely qualifies under this criterion. As long as respect for basic human rights is held sacrosanct in this country, there can be no justification--even in the imprisoned population--for the infliction of psychological and physical damage that results from coercive sexual activities and other abuses.
Transforming Public Policy and Perspectives
As a concerned citizen, one can work with others to end this blight in the correctional system. Elected officials must be educated, and urged to care, about sexual abuse in the prisons. Correctional officers and other prison personnel should be supported as much as possible in their difficult task of making the prisons safer for all concerned; moreover, they should be trained to look for--and stop--suspicious behavior before it becomes victimization. If it is necessary to hire and train more guards, then this should unhesitatingly be done.
Those who have already suffered traumatic sexual encounters in prison ("Male Rape Trauma Syndrome") should be encouraged to seek counseling and develop a dialogue with others who may provide needed support and consolation. Those who are currently incarcerated should be given information on how to avoid becoming victims. Since there is an ineliminable sexual component to prison rape, the employment of "conjugal visits" (permitting sexual relations with wives and girlfriends) for those incarcerated should be seriously considered. Several South American countries allow "conjugal visits" as part of the goal to reduce prison violence.
Until significant changes are effected, condoms should be supplied to help stem the spread of AIDS; reducing the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases will profit both those within prison and the rest of the non-prison population who might later face exposure from those who were infected while in prison. On a political level, the public should insist that the protection of human rights in prisons be important enough of an issue to have the requisite funds be allocated to finance the project of making changes in the correctional system.
Lastly, aside from the issue of ending sexual abuse per se, broader rehabilitative measures should be implemented in correctional facilities, e.g., vocational and other job-related training should be offered to encourage those who are motivated to use the opportunity to improve themselves, learn job skills, and move on.
Deeper Issues and Fundamental Changes
However productive these solutions may seem, they remain, in a sense, palliative. No matter how safe the prisons may become, the number of inmates entering and staying in the penal system needs to be drastically reduced. Even considering the large population of Texas, it was recently ranked as possessing the 3rd largest prison population in the world (The Texas Observer, Sept. 17, 1999).
Deeper, less comfortable questions need to be asked if fundamental improvements in prison life are to occur: Is the ubiquitous dissolution of the family and community structures contributing to widespread delinquency and crime? If so, what can be done to aid its remedy? Faced with the sobering facts that a great percentage of those currently incarcerated are serving time for drug offenses, combined with the near failure of waging an incessant "War on Drugs," does the criminal status of illicit drug use need to be modified or abolished? Would an increased emphasis on a preventive--instead of retributive--approach to crime serve as a better model toward criminality? Would an enhanced educational system increase opportunities and income prospects, thereby discouraging those who might find the financial benefits of crime attractive? These are only a few of the questions that should be asked when discussing solutions to the problem of prison abuse.
Plainly, ending the wrong of sexual victimization in America's prisons is inevitably part of the larger project of social betterment; which, if it is to have more than a modicum of success, must be inextricably tied to closely scrutinizing the array of core societal institutions and practices.