|The Week Online: 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 rape?
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?
WOL: 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 us 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 cellblock 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
cellblock had been created only hours earlier, taking prisoners from other
cellblocks 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 us 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
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.
WOL: 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.
WOL: Surely you're not blaming the
Cahill: Not at all. I blame
the US 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 civil rights. 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
us 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.
WOL: 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 used as extra punishment
for jailhouse lawyers and troublemakers such as Eddie Dillard at the Corcoran
unit. Then it is used to divide prisoners along racial lines.
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 Death Row.
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."
WOL: Is rape inevitable in a prison
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 annual an convention where they compare notes.
More need to follow his lead. More need to be pressured to do so.
It's what's right.