Patricia Nell Warren

Exposing the Prevalence of Rape in the U.S. Prison System

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | May 24, 2011 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: coming out of the closet, gay inmates, LGBTs in prison, Steve Mason

As an addition to the tumultuous Steve Mason threads (see the original guest post and the follow up Comment of the Week post), I'm posting a piece on U.S. prisons that I wrote for A & U Magazine two months ago. It's a subject I've frequently covered for A & U, Jail.jpghaving known a number of gay men and lesbians who did serious time, including one who was imprisoned first in the U.S. Navy Brig at Miramar and later at Leavenworth.

Steve Mason's coming out in a California state prison is one of the bravest things I've heard of. Since inmates are terribly vulnerable to reprisal for any political waves that they make from behind bars, I pray that nothing bad happens to him in there. At the very least, he could lose all privileges. He could be putting his 2015 release in jeopardy. At worst, he could suffer great physical, emotional, spiritual and mental harm.

So Steve's crime, whatever it was, does not matter to me. Steve has been there long enough that he surely knows the risk he faces. The fact that he dared to make this political statement "outside" gives him credibility enough for me.

Reading the comments on Mason's piece, I was dumfounded by the judgmentalism and ignorance shown by a few of the LGBT commenters. I can only imagine how Mason will view these comments when his outside supporter R Conrad brings him the print-outs. Thank heavens for the humanity and common sense shown by some of the other commenters.

The fact is, an American prison or jail is a place where every one of us had better pray we don't wind up. I've never spent a day behind bars, but I grew up in a town where one of the country's worst state penitentiaries was located, and I've heard enough about "American prison" from people who survived it and saw its worst that I personally pray I never go there.

Majorly bad things can happen to you if you're merely being held overnight without being charged - not to mention what happens to you if you're there for months or years. The United States of America operates on a hyper-punitive penal policy, so our government doesn't care how many of us it puts away or how our lives can be destroyed by incarceration. Today, according to Bureau of Justice statistics, nearly 7 million people live in that shadow of prison walls, counting all of those who are on parole, as well as those who are incarcerated. Today, with national security an issue, we have the growing problem of torture and "secret prisons."

So, the fact is, our country is globally recognized as having some of the nastiest prisons and jails in the world - owing in part to the rampant sexual violence that prevails, even in juvenile detention. Steve Mason comments on this. This sexual violence is often directed against inmates who are known to be, or simply suspected of being, LGBT. But it can also be turned, like a flamethrower, against any individual or group, for any reason whatever. Violence - not law - is what runs our prisons and jails, and often the penal authorities themselves participate in it.

If the conservative knotheads who are taking over our courts and legislative majorities get to have their way about prison life, things will get worse instead of better.

So a little background on the prison-rape issue might be in order.

My A & U Column, "Left Field," March 2011

Rape is a hot topic today. Yet the "moralistic" conservative Republicans sitting in Congress, along with some blue dog Democrats, consider it an outdated issue once raised by feminists, and they seemingly don't give a hoot about some Americans who are raped - judging by their proposed bans on abortions for women who are raped.

Conservative legislators' coldness towards human need also extends to those inmates of America's overcrowded prisons and jails who are raped repeatedly while in custody. At state levels, drastic budget cuts have included attempts to reduce correctional populations by releasing some inmates early. For example, Texas faces a $27 billion budget shortfall and is cutting prison spending in a frenzy. Technically, reducing populations would reduce the number of rapes as well. But actually, the loss of certain key programs - retraining staff, etc. - is evidently pushing redividism, which pushes populations back toward a bloated maximum.

In January, for the first time, the Justice Department released its own shocking inmate-rape figures. In just one year, an estimated 216,600 inmates were victims of violent sex crime. The figure is higher than previous estimates by prisoner activists. Given that nearly 2 ½ million Americans are now behind bars, that is nearly 10 percent of all inmates, including minors in youth detention. Often these rapes are brutal enough to cause lasting physical crippling, not to mention emotional and spiritual scarring that lasts a lifetime.

According to Just Detention International:

Prisoner rape survivors continue to be locked up with their assailants, unable to escape -- forced to live in constant fear of another attack, their trauma renewed every time they see their abusers. These are our fellow human beings: men, women, and children who one day will return home to their families and communities.

How did things ever get so bad? Over many decades, rape was gradually institutionalized in America's gang-ridden, multi-racial penal system. Authorities not only dismissed it as a human rights issue but came to rely on it as a management tool and a form of punishment - and as a perk for corrupt prison guards who rape men, women, and children in their custody.

For more than 40 years now, pioneering activists have tried to bring this ugly problem to the attention of a public that didn't want to hear about it. In 1968 a young Vietnam veteran, Tom Cahill, was arrested for anti-war civil disobedience and jailed in San Antonio, where he was gang-raped and tortured for 24 hours on his very first night. Years later, trying to forget the experience, he ran into two other men, Russell Dan Smith and Stephen Donaldson, who'd had similarly searing experiences. In 1980 Smith founded a tiny volunteer organization, Stop Prisoner Rape (SPR). It was America's first (and so far only) organization dedicated to ending the problem.

But these gallant advocates faced a lonely, uphill fight. During the 1980s, our nation went crazy with a "get tough on crime" attitude. With voter support, state legislators passed punitive laws to put more and more people behind bars for drug abuse and other non-violent crimes, with mandatory sentencing that made for long, draconian sentences. By 2009, 1 million of our 2,297,400 inmates were "inside" for non-violent offenses. Seventy percent of these were poor people of color - a stark proof of racial bias by prosecutors. As a result, our prison population has actually quadrupled since the 1980s.

In 1994, Donaldson incorporated SPR and became its president. After Donaldson died in 1996 of AIDS contracted during a long-ago rape, Cahill became one of the presidents. Today SPR is renamed Just Detention International, and it continues to be the only national organization of its kind.

Already in 2003, grim health stats were coming in. American expert Megan Comfort, writing for Le Monde Diplomatique, commented:

1.3 million of the 9 million released in 2002 were infected with hepatitis C, 137,000 with HIV, and 12,000 had tuberculosis. These figures represent 29%, 13-17%, and 35% respectively of the total number of Americans who have these diseases. As public health researchers have warned for years, the mass incarceration that has been happening across the country since the early 1980s has been accompanied by the mass incubation of infectious diseases in correctional facilities across the U.S.

Comfort adds:

The alarming prevalence of infectious diseases among the incarcerated ratchets up the costs: sky-high rates of illness and infection translate into equally high prison medical costs, which is a difficult issue to pitch to taxpayers who already have seen engorged correctional budgets dwarf allotments for education and social welfare spending.

In recent years, at the federal level, we do see glimmers of conscience among some legislators. In 2003 Congress finally got embarrassed enough to pass the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA ). A National Prison Rape Elimination Commission was created to recommend reforms within one year.

But by 2005, The New York Times was reporting California as an example of little progress:

The secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Roderick Q. Hickman, told [a] panel that ... outdated prison designs, inadequate electronic surveillance systems and an antiquated computer database had stalled progress.

In 2009 HR 1429, the Stop AIDS in Prison Act, for mandatory HIV testing of all inmates, was passed by the House. But the bill died in the Senate, because of issues around informed consent. In short, eight years have passed since PREA, and there's little real progress.

Prison authorities have actually tried to argue that they can't be held responsible, even when prison staff are the rapists. In a 2001 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court kicked over a lower court's ruling on the case Ortiz v. Jordan. SCOTUS crisply reminded the country of existing laws saying that officials must protect an inmate who they know to be in danger.

But laws and court decisions aren't enough to change things for the average inmate who finds the nightmare happening on his or her very first night in detention. Take Pennsylvania, where things are so bad that a watchdog website,, is dedicated to prison rape in that state alone. Its mission: "To benefit the 120,000+ state, local and federal prisoners in Pennsylvania, their families and loved ones." There, blogger Fundament Brown writes furiously about Lebanon County and its jail:

Perhaps the most extremely right-wing and anti-liberty place in the Northeast. ...[the] Republican county commissioners think that it's nothing to be concerned about because the victims are only convicts; they deserve to be raped! Didn't most of these guys commit some minor offense like drunk driving to be in prison?

Can prison rape be prevented? In a 2007 interview by DRCNet, Tom Cahill said:

Prison rape can be easily and inexpensively curbed. I invite you to look at what Sheriff [Michael] 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.

Condom availability could also minimize spread of some disease. Some rape survivors say they could have convinced their attackers to use a condom. In the "moralistic" United States, only a handful of county jails and state prisons provide detainees with condoms. Federal prisons don't allow condoms at all. Yet condom distribution is standard in South African, Canadian, and many European prisons.

Today some observers insist that HIV transmission is not frequent in prison. Jackie Walker, HIV/AIDS/Hepatitis information coordinator for the ACLU National Prison Project, cites a Georgia study suggesting that 90 percent of HIV-positive inmates were infected before entering prison. "We shouldn't view prisons as vectors of disease," Walker said. But others disagree, including Project UNSHACKLE, which points out that one in four people with HIV/AIDS has been to prison. In 2004, the HIV prevalence rate inside U.S. prisons was more than four times higher that in society overall. Keith DeBlasio, member of JDI's Survivor Council, is a former inmate who was infected in Michigan. Today he says: "I committed a crime and was sent to prison. Fair enough. But I didn't deserve a death sentence."

Walker's position on HIV also begs the point that other infectious diseases can be spread by prison rape as well. Worse, these rape survivors often return to their communities and families as unknowing carriers of diseases transmitted to them by their attackers - not only HIV, but MRSA, syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, hepatitis B, HPV and genital herpes, to name a few.

As I write this, the United States is cheering the fall of a corrupt and undemocratic government in Egypt and pointing to the appalling brutalities that were routine in Mubarak's prisons. But we have our own corrupt and undemocratic government officials to worry about - and the appalling brutalities in our own prisons. It's past time for the United States to stop pointing the finger at other countries and clean up its own act.

Further reading:

Just Detention International

Tom Cahill interview


The A & U column is reprinted here in a somewhat shortened version. (img src)

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It's encouraging to read about the San Francisco protocol. All prison brutality does is prove that it isn't the brutality that's wrong, it's the powerlessness that's the problem. It proves that brutality is actually o k unless it represents a threat to those with power when one engages in brutality that hasn't been sanctioned by those with power. Law and order should be focused on protecting those without power from being abused by those with power, whether it is pure physical brute power, economic power or institutional power not punishment, except where it truly serves as a way deter people from having the opportunity to abuse others. Making someone feel the same pain they have caused others is only useful if it truly makes a person remorseful. Punishment meted out that has no direct practical purpose is a perversely vain, self satisfying cruelty that only perpetuates vicious cycles.

"During the last 20 years, corrections spending has increased by 127 percent on top of inflation, while spending on higher ed has increased only 21 percent."

I just found that quote looking for statistics on my home state. That puts us back around 1991. Things have been escalating since the seventies and especially since the death, by cocaine overdose, of Len Bias, who was the star recruit for the professional basketball team in Tip O'Neil's home district. It's the most difficult thing for proud people to admit how wrong they are. This is especially true of those responsible for all the self righteous feel good legislation passed over the last thirty some odd years. Something has to change. The approach to drug addiction and the black markets created by poverty and prohibition is not working. The two available alternatives are economic justice, education, treatment or to make the system pay for itself by turning prisons into slave labor camps and expanding the list of crimes subject to the death penalty.

Thanks for providing the background and statistics that shed the necessary light upon how difficult it is for a person in prison to be heard who desperately needs to be heard.

Om Kalthoum | May 24, 2011 4:22 PM

I read Steve's piece and most of both sets of comments. I think that one can be against many aspects of our (in)justice system and the prison industry, and still be curious about Steve's reticence to inform us what crime(s) brought him to hard time. I note that he didn't ever claim that he was innocent of whatever he was convicted of, as several commenters suggested he might be.

If I showed up unknown on a website not specifically related to GLBT issues and began to discuss these issues, I wouldn't be surprised if people wondered whether I was a lesbian. Indeed, I would probably get that bit of info out of the way myself at the outset. Elephant in the room, and all that.

That Steve so studiously ignored this central part of his story sets off alarms for me. At any rate, why should I be open to him if he remains closed off to us?

Hi Om Kalthoum,

I have been following this person at a local progressive blog in my hometown:

I came across this article yesterday in the midst of the prison/Steve Mason discussion. He was convicted of murdering a college professor while he was a student at Emerson College. He has been out for a while. I am pretty sure he is involved in a local group in Providence called Direct Action for Rights and Equality. He has been out of prison for a while and very active, locally. He doesn't introduce himself as a murderer every time he writes on a topic. I'm not sure if he ever does. He has an awful lot to say. He has the respect of a lot of people who may or may not agree with him. I judge what he has to say based on the points he makes, not something he was judged for almost two decades ago. He has a blog called Unprison. I don't always agree on everything he says but I find his insights very informative.

People go to court and, if they are lucky, are represented by lawyers to put what they have been charged with in context and to help with complexities that are often involved when a crime is committed. I know that if you are represented by a public defender, the public defender probably won't have the time to make sure you get a fair trial, not because they don't care but because they are way too overloaded with cases. I have seen this happen very close-up. If Sirhan Sirhan came out in prison as a gay man, I think he, too, should have the same protection and rights as anyone should have in a fair and just legal system. Steve's in prison. He's doing his time. He has already had a trial. Sure, it might help if we knew what he was convicted of but it might create distortions, too. I don't think we know a lot of the details about how much access he has to the outside, either. It doesn't seem like he can just get back to the commenters to satisfy their curiosity.

Brad Bailey | May 24, 2011 8:11 PM

Wow! Superbly comprehensive article and super-intelligent comments. This is why I read Bilerico.

Reading this article, as well as Steve's post, brought me back to thoughts and feelings I thought I had left behind many years ago.

Like Steve I also spent time in a California State Prison, from 1990-1992. I entered the prison self identifying as a gay man, although a closeted one. It didn't take but one day in the prison system to start having my sexuality challenged, and two days before someone decided no matter what I might say that he was going to get what he wanted from me.

During my time away, I further explored thoughts and feelings I had kept locked away, not too long into my stay, I came to terms with what had always troubled me, which was that I was not a gay man, but a transgender woman. So while locked away, I began my own personal process of transition, thats been over 20 years now, and I thought I had left a lot of what happened as a result behind me, its amazing what one can choose to forget.

It certainly wasn't easy. Its funny how for all the 'prison' fantasies and videos you hear about, how terrifying it can be to be on the other end of that when its real. And while one may think that my adoption of a female persona, and embracing of my gender identity would be appreciated in such an environment, it was most assuradely not, from the guards right down to the inmates, I was harassed and intimidated, my personal safety was ignored, etc. It wasn't an easy time. There are those who say that prison isn't meant to be easy, and maybe its not, but its also not meant to make you fear for your life, or leave you with emotional scars that never quite heal because of the treatment one receives from inmates within.

My hats off to Steve for his post, and to Patricia for her well thought out follow up in this one. My heart goes out to him. Unfortunately in this society a GLBT individiual is second class, and one who is in prison or has been in prison, is even more of one.

Patricia, thanks for the incredibly thorough and informative article. As a society, we don't talk about the prison system in general enough, let alone the sexual violence and other, more LGBT-specific difficulties that go on there. Thanks for bringing light to it!