Reneging on Rape

Left Field by Patricia Nell Warren

Instead of Dismissing Sexual Violence in Prison and Its Health Effects, Some Are Unlocking Possible Solutions.

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 Yet the “moralistic” conservative Republicans sitting in Congress, along with some blue dog Democrats, consider it an outdated issue once raised by feminists, and they seemingly don’t give a hoot about some Americans who are raped. In January, as part of their budget-cutting onslaught, House Republicans introduced HR 3, the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act.” The bill’s 173 supporters included a clause that denies Medicaid abortion funding to females made pregnant by anything other than “forcible” rape. Meaning any females that are overpowered without actual assault, as in the case of a child victim, or a woman who is disabled, mentally ill, or rendered unconscious by a date-rape drug. Presumably these solons are “morally” steeled to deny abortions to their own female relatives who might become victims of “non-forcible” rape.

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 recidivism, which pushes populations back towards 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 a violent sex crime. The figure is higher than previous estimates by prisoner activists. Given that nearly 2.5 million Americans are now behind bars, that is nearly ten 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. Says 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.”

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.

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 forty 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 twenty-four 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 similar searing experiences. In 1980 Smith founded a tiny volunteer organization, Stop Prisoner Rape. 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 continues to be the only national organization of its kind.

Already in 2003, grim health stats were coming in. American health 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 figures are dramatic but not really surprising. Much of the behaviour [sic] for which people are sent to jail—such as injecting drugs, sex work, and violence—leads to infection with blood-borne or sexually transmitted diseases….Once behind bars, the practices continue….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 gone by 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 Web site,, 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 diseases. Some rape survivors say they could have convinced their attackers to use a condom. In the “moralistic” U.S., 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 ninety 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.

Last but not least, the United States needs to grow up and get over its penchant for punishing non-violent offenses—whether drug-related or not—with long punitive sentences. The cost is way too high, not only economically speaking, but humanly speaking as well.
As I write this, the U.S. 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:


Author of fiction bestsellers and provocative commentary, Patricia Nell Warren has her writings archived at Reach her by e-mail at [email protected]

March 2011

Copyright © 2011 by Patricia Nell Warren. All rights reserved.