Prison Rape And The Atrocity Of The American Penal System
“I’m 16 years old. I was placed in a maximum security prison and raped several times. This keeps happening because the staff … will not transfer me to the right security level. The person that is raping me told me if I told anyone that he would kill me … The other night I tried to kill myself … My mind is starting to go in a world of it’s own so the pain won’t hurt so bad. I don’t feel like a human being anymore. I’m a sexually abused animal. I should not feel this way, because I’m not supposed to be in the adult prison system. Please help me.“
“I escaped [from a minimum-security institution] because older inmates were sexually harassing me. I were [sic] caught off of escape within 24 hours. The staff wrote me up and placed me in a maximum from an minimum. When I were [sic] placed in a cell … the convicts start yelling they were going the hit me in my butt. About a week went by then they placed an older convict … who waited until I were [sic] sleep laying on my stomach before he jumped on me an penetrated my butt with his penis … When I wehen [sic] to the law library they were sexually harassing me because … told them what happen.”
“In October, 1964, after a beating [by his father], I went to school with 2 black eyes, cuts, and bruises; my teacher asked what happened; I told her, ‘Me and my dad got in a fight.’ She reported it, and I was arrested. They called it ‘protection.’ I spent my first night of protection being sodomized by the 3 teenagers who shared the cell they put me in; I was 6 years old.”
These are excerpts from letters prisoners wrote detailing their experiences being raped while in custody. For many in the outside world, prison rape is an urban legend — a misconstrued factoid that comedians make fun of and people remind each other of to keep them out of trouble. Movies like “Office Space,” “American History X,” “Half Baked” and “Let’s Go to Prison,” and television shows like “The Boondocks” and “Saturday Night Live!” have all used the concept for laughs, while dramas like “Oz” and “Prison Break,” films like “The Shawshank Redemption,” and books like “Breakfast of Champions” have used prison rape as a way of advancing their storylines.
The fact is that prison rape is a very real thing, and in America — which has the largest prison system with about 2.3 million inmates (as reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, not counting detainees held by the Department of Homeland Security, Indian reservation jails, Department of Defense prisons, halfway houses and police lockups) and the most prisoners per capita than any other nation in the world — it represents a true crisis. Those who are detained are disproportionately from disenfranchised groups: the poor, the poorly-educated, those with darker skin, the mentally ill and the systematically abandoned. They are given longer sentences than their white counterparts or prisoners with similar offenses in the European Union or Canada, and they are typically treated in a more blatant, discriminatory manner.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ 2012 Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 Data Collection Activities, an estimated 9.6 percent of all former state prisoners reported one or more incidents of sexual assault during their incarceration; 5.4 percent reported an incident involving another inmate, and 5.3 percent reported an incident involving staff of the facility. Approximately 1.2 percent of all prisoners reported receiving unwanted sexual contact from the facility staff, and 4.6 percent reported conscientious sex with prison staff.
Additionally, 39 percent of all male homosexual inmates were sexually victimized by another inmate. Another 34 percent of all bisexual male inmates were raped by another inmate.
More than 209,400 people are sexually assaulted each year while in governmental custody. This is a disgrace and a violation of trust beyond measurement.
It is easy and attractive to discount the situation as prisoners being punished for their crimes, but that assertion ignores a couple of key points. First, American prisoners are not disenfranchised of their rights as Americans; they are still entitled to the rights and protections afforded to any other American, unless specifically stricken by statute. Second, should it be accepted that allowing prisoners to be raped is morally acceptable when allowing someone who is innocent to potentially suffer the same fate isn’t? The fact of the matter behind incarceration is that — just because a person is in prison for a crime, it does not mean the person actually committed the crime. What incarceration means is that a jury believed that the prisoner committed the crime.
Juries have been wrong before and have convicted innocent people. On the basis that an innocent person may be subjected to undue abuse, it is imperative that such abuse does not happen in the first place. The federal government agrees with this sentiment.
The Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 was passed with bipartisan support and unanimous consent, a rarity in modern politics. The Act creates a “zero tolerance” policy toward prison rape through the development of a national standard to prevent incidents of sexual violence in prisons. It called for the regular reporting of statistics on sexual violence in prisons and the establishment of the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, which is charged with the studying of sexual assaults under incarceration in the United States and the presentation of findings from these studies (the commission sunsetted in 2009).
A result of the commission’s work is the Second Chance Act, which was signed into law on April 9, 2008. The Act provides grant money to programs that assist in helping released inmates readjust to society and find a way to be productive, healthy members of their communities. Examples of programs that the grant money has been used for include a sophisticated screening and re-entry assessment tool in San Mateo, Calif. that “develops individualized re-entry plans with a package of services that may include peer mentoring support, education and employment services, mental health and substance abuse treatment, life skills training, or housing services”; the Illinois Department of Corrections expanding its Moms & Babies Program, which is a prison-based nursery program for incarcerated mothers with children aged 0-24 months; and the Baltimore City Health department, which expanded its initiative focusing on youth who are at highest risk of being a victim or perpetrator of violence.
Congress has decreased the allocations to this program increasingly since 2010. The program requested $100 million in allocations; in 2012, it will receive $63 million. It should also be noted that President Bush attached a signing statement to this Act, exempting the executive branch from examination in the course of compiling data for reporting efforts.
Most, however, feel that this only highlights the issue; it does nothing to correct the problem. Mike Farrell, in a blog for the Huffington Post, wrote:
“Stop Prisoner Rape, founded in 1980 to deal ‘with the problems of rape, sexual assault, un-consensual sexual slavery, and forced prostitution in the prison context,’ was formed by brave men who admitted their own victimization in order to save others from the same fate. After twenty years, they were finally able to open an office. Not until 2003 did they develop enough support to secure the passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), the first-ever federal law acknowledging this hidden sin…Now, the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission meets periodically to ‘study the impact of prisoner rape.’ While they study, rape continues. And to this day those who decades ago had the courage to challenge rape in prison are tortured for their audacity.”
The gravity of the abuse
“I hear this woman’s voice everyday. She has victimized other girls here as well + no one will lift a finger to stop her. She runs this institution + if one displeases her, they are victimized. I believe the officials are scared of her + the obvious power she holds. Knowing her the way I do, I sincerely believe she is blackmailing someone to get away with what she has + is still doing.
“No one cares what happens to a prisoner. Everyone has the attitude that prisoners complain too much + have unreal expectations in wanting to live as a human being. That we somehow deserve all that happens to us. I know this attitude well; because I used to have this view before my incarceration.”
—Prison Letters about Prison Rape, stormfront.org
It is logical how such atrocities can happen. Prison is a hard place. In a place where there is little loyalty and little incentive to cooperate or tell the truth, ascertaining the truth is a difficult proposition. Many prison administrators complain that prisoners may “game” the system, using accusations of rape or abuse to get a separate room or to punish a prisoner or guard they do not like. Others complain that they do not have the funding or manpower to adequately train their staff in detection and prevention techniques. Still others complain that they do follow proper reporting methods, but local prosecutors refuse to take on prisoner cases against law enforcement. Ultimately, district attorneys are just as susceptible to societal stereotypes as the rest of society.
This country’s prison system is in a state of disrepair, which not only endangers the prisoners, but all of us, as these newly hardened, mentally scarred and emotionally vulnerable individuals must now find a way to live with what happened to them in prison once released. This is not the way to treat humans; and regardless of what they may or may not have done, prisoners are indeed still human. In a nation where no one — no government, private organization, even the president or the attorney general — knows the exact number of inmates currently incarcerated, and where the best anyone can do is roughly guess, that nation’s system is broken and must be fixed.
A.A. was an inmate at the Orleans Parish (LA) Prison (OPP). In testimony before the Justice Department, Elizabeth Cumming, a New Orleans civil rights attorney representing A.A. and others, attested that “OPP is in such a state of crisis that we, in New Orleans, are forced to rely on the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division to help us rebuild a fundamentally broken system. The level of sexual assaults and violence present in the jail are symptoms of this system’s profound dysfunction.” In her investigation of the prison system, she found the prison dangerously crowded, with little discretion taken to separate vulnerable populations from predatory populations. A.A., in his testimony, related his trauma:
“When I was arrested in 2008 in New Orleans, I was on a 72-hour pass from [a work center] in Mississippi … Because I didn’t return to the Work Center within 72-hours, I was considered an escapee and arrested on October 31, 2008. I went to the Central Lock-[U]p at the OPP’s House of Detention. I was thirty years old at the time.
“In January 2009, I was moved from Central Lock-[U]p to the general population at the OPP’s House of Detention (HOD). Before assigning me to the general population, the facility officials didn’t do a screening process. For instance, no one asked me if I was gay. No one asked me if I had ever been sexually assaulted before, either. The fact is that I had been—prior to my incarceration. Because I was afraid for my safety, I told them I was gay and that I wanted to be put on a tier for gay men … When they said they didn’t have that tier anymore, I asked if I could just stay in Central Lock-Up. They said no and that I had to go to general population.
“They put me in an overcrowded cell that should have been used for ten inmates maximum, but had fifteen or sixteen in it when I got there. The other inmates were all between eighteen and twenty-one years old. From the moment I arrived, they were sizing me up. They asked me whether I was gay. I was scared to lie to them so I said ‘yes.’ I didn’t have a bed so I took a mat to lay on. I was so depressed and exhausted that I put it on the floor next to the cell bars and took a nap.
“I woke up all of a sudden when some of my cellmates threw a chest of ice on me that was kept in the cell for drinks. One of the inmates told me to give him a blow job. This man was very scary, and I felt extremely afraid. I called for help, but there were no guards around and no one responded to my screams. At first, I refused to do what the inmate was telling me to do, but then he grabbed me by my hair and kicked me while another inmate held a knife to my back. I decided that I had better do what he wanted in order to save my life—I was already bleeding from the knife.
“Later that night, several of these inmates tied me down to the frame of a bed in the cell with strips of a blue towel. I tried to fight them off at first, but a large inmate choked me until I passed out. When I came to, I was choked again. There were at least a dozen inmates around who saw what was happening. Three of the men said they wanted me to give them oral sex, but they were afraid that I would bite them, so they masturbated onto me instead. This nightmare only ended when an inmate kicked me off the bed I was tied to because he wanted to go to sleep.
“During my assault, there were no guards around. I quickly realized that the guards at OPP did not do rounds of the tiers on a regular basis, so there was no one to protect me … And there were no cameras around, so the attacks weren’t recorded or seen by guards in another part of the jail …
“The morning after that first night at OPP, I couldn’t go to the showers so I washed up as best I could using the small sink in the cell. I tried to be friendly to the other inmates just so I could try to keep from being attacked again. But, I was on the lookout for an officer who I could ask for help. The whole day passed and I never had a chance to talk to a guard or any other staff members.
“As the next night came, I was really anxious. I had not been able to speak with any jail officials, and I was so afraid that my cellmates would attack me again. That night, three of the inmates—all large men—anally raped me. With no one to
help me, I laid down on the floor, bleeding from my injuries, and terrified about what would happen next. My cellmates continued to orally and anally gang-rape me . . . the whole time I was at OPP sometimes in the cell, but often in the showers.
“It happened so many times I lost count.”
A.A. filed six grievances with OPP to no response. When he attempted to give his grievance to a correctional officer, the officer allegedly responded, “A faggot raped in prison — imagine that!“ He also requested medical care 25 times, also to no response. When he did get medical care, no rape kit was administered, and despite being told he has herpes — which was suspected to be passed during the sexual violations — no further action was taken.
When questioned by the Review Panel on Prison Rape — the committee that gathered the testimonies on behalf of the Department of Justice — about why A.A.’s grievances were not addressed, Col. Jerry Ursin, commander of the Intake and Processing Center, simply stated, “We dropped the ball on that case as an organization.”
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