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 US 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 US. Citing surveys of guards and inmates, the group reported "shocking" rates of prison rape: A 1968 Philadelphia study found 3%, a 1982 California study reported 14%; 11% in Nebraska in 1996, and last year, in a study of prisons in four midwestern states, the Prison Journal found 7%. Correctional officers surveyed anonymously put the figure at 20%. 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 US prisons.
With nearly two million people behind bars in this country, the scope of this crime is enormous. At a 3% rape rate among male prisoners, that is 54,000 prisoners raped every year. That is the lowball figure. If 10% 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% 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 (http://www.november.org) 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 sentence."
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 '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 (http://www.cjpf.org), 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 actions."
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 at http://www.hrw.org/reports/2001/prison/ online.