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Quick Now: What Has 2 Million Victims, Turns Passive Men Violent, Spreads HIV and Could Be Stopped Overnight? If You Said 'Prison Rape,' You're in on the Joke.

Fred Dickey

Los Angeles Times Magazine

November 3 2002

Bill Handel is a drive-time radio host on L.A.'s KFI-AM (640). He stays popular because he has a feel for what makes his audience chuckle as they head for that unfunny 9 a.m. encounter with the boss. His repertoire includes prison rape jokes, the tired but reliable picking-up-soap-in-the-shower ones, especially when the hapless subject is a celebrated or heinous convict. "When people hear about a victim" of prison rape, Handel explains, the response is: "So he should have stayed out of jail!"

Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, the chief law enforcement official of California, told the Wall Street Journal last year that Enron CEO Kenneth Lay deserved to be jailed with a cellmate who would say to him, "Hi. My name is Spike, honey."

Everyone, it seems, is in on prison rape jokes. Don't worry about crossing a line because when the subject is inmates raping other inmates, people don't empathize. They laugh.

So have you heard this one? The FBI says that 89,107 women reported rapes in the U.S. in 1999. Prison experts say that at least twice that number of men are raped each year in prison. "Prison rape is the most tolerated act of terrorism in the U.S.," says James E. Robertson, a professor of corrections at Minnesota State University, Mankato, who has studied the problem for 15 years.

Precise numbers of these rapes are not available. Neither the federal government nor the state of California keep statistics on the crime. But this much is known: Just as heterosexual rapes across the U.S. are often not reported, sexual abuse in prison is "massively underreported," says Terry Kupers of Oakland, a psychiatrist who has written and edited books on prison conditions. Kupers believes that more than one-third of all incoming inmates in American jails and prisons are either sexually assaulted or are in imminent danger of attack.

Cindy Struckman-Johnson, a psychology professor at the University of South Dakota, says that studies she has conducted suggest that at least 22% of the some 2 million male prisoners nationwide have been either pressured or forced to submit to sex at least once. Stop Prisoner Rape, an organization co-founded by Stephen Donaldson, a Vietnam veteran who was raped repeatedly after being jailed for protesting the Vietnam War, argues that one prisoner in five has been sexually abused and that one in 10 has been raped.

Yet most Americans accept prison rape as a harsh reality, and their jokes imply that the victims are getting their just reward. "The only people who care are the relatives, and they are usually poor and uneducated," explains Cal Skinner Jr., a conservative Republican who fought for state prison reform during eight terms in the Illinois Legislature. Skinner eventually paid a high price for his activism when he lost a reelection bid to an opponent who mocked his efforts to end prison rape. But he and others continue to work against the abuses. Their findings won't set up many punch lines.

The victims often haven't been convicted of crimes, Kupers says. Many prison rapes happen in poorly supervised local jails to short-time prisoners who are found innocent or sometimes not even charged with a crime.

Most of those who have been convicted are serving time for nonviolent offenses. But to survive behind bars, they are forced to adapt to the culture of brutality, says Vincent Schiraldi, president of the Justice Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. Many have trouble leaving it behind once set free. "Prisons have a far better chance of turning a nonviolent inmate into an armed robber than into a law-abiding citizen," Schiraldi says.

Worse still is Skinner's ominous warning that research conducted by his legislative staff found an alarming amount of HIV among prisoners. "Prison systems in many states are a major breeding grounds for the AIDS virus, and that can give rape victims an unadjudicated death sentence. How can society live with that?"

Seven years ago, Lawrence Bittenbender was held temporarily in the Santa Clara County jail in San Jose awaiting extradition to the state of Washington to serve time for child molestation, a conviction to which he protests his innocence and blames his ex-wife for a false accusation. He was placed in a dormitory that housed 28 men. At 2 a.m., he was jumped by five inmates who, he believes, had been told by guards of the nature of the charge against him. He says he was awakened by a blanket thrown over his head and the bodies of several men piling on top. He was forced to endure at least a half-hour of rape.

"I had no idea it was coming," he says. "All of a sudden, I couldn't breathe. Someone grabbed at my clothes. Someone thumped my head." The raping "was excruciating, pain that seemed to go on forever. There was blood everywhere." He says he required surgery to repair the damage to his sphincter muscle.

Bittenbender, now 46, is serving time in McNeil Island Corrections Center in Washington. He is bitter and angry, a powerful man ready to use his strength and rage without hesitation. He never stops being watchful and pumps iron preparing for the day of the next attack. "I know how to take care of myself now. If someone tries it again, no matter how long his sentence is, he'll be free in the morning. I'll take a lot of damage, and I'll kill him." To prove his resolve, he goes to great lengths to explain an ingenious way that a "shiv" (homemade knife) can be made out of everyday materials.

The state of California knows that violent sexual assaults are common, but refuses to take meaningful steps to prevent them, says a high-ranking official with the Department of Corrections who asked that his name be withheld. Prison rape "is not treated as a problem," he says. "We don't do anywhere near all we could to prevent it."

California corrections officials say they have no idea how many rapes occur in their prisons, although Brian Parry, a corrections assistant director who recently retired, says, "In terms of numbers, I don't see it as a big problem. It doesn't get reported very frequently."

Others in the department disagree. They see rape as a cancer that corrections does not fight aggressively because acknowledging its extent would make the department look bad and make the state more vulnerable to lawsuits, the high-ranking official says. It would also remove a tool that many prison guards use to control prisoners, Robertson says. "There's an implicit quid pro quo between some officers and gangs, as well as the more aggressive inmates: You keep the lid on and we'll leave you alone."

Paul Wright, 37, is editor of Prison Legal News, a monthly newspaper, while serving time at Monroe Correctional Complex in Washington for the botched robbery-murder of a drug dealer in 1987. He has never been attacked in prison because, he says, "I was older, bigger and could defend myself." But he became aware of the problem while confined. "We'd be watching television, and you know how you get to a silent part of a movie? We'd hear prisoners screaming for help: 'Guard, guard, help! I'm being raped!' and guards wouldn't respond."

The issue briefly flared into prominence in California in 1998, when four guards at Corcoran State Prison near Fresno stood trial on the criminal charge that they had used rape as a disciplinary tool by allowing a sinister inmate called the "Booty Bandit" to rape an L.A. gang member named Eddie Dillard repeatedly. The four were acquitted. Even so, says the corrections official, some guards allow rapes to go on. "Absolutely. It's a mentality and ego thing [among guards] who think, 'I'm God and I have the power.' "

William Rigg, a retired lieutenant in the California Department of Corrections, says the prison system simply regards rapes with indifference. "They just don't care, from the C.O.s [correctional officers] all the way up to the director of corrections. The governor, to him the CDC is a pain in the butt. The less he hears about it, the happier he is."

The powerful union that represents prison guards, the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., does not see inmate sexual assault as a problem. Lance Corcoran, executive vice president and a former guard, says offenses may be "underreported," but he believes that most occasions of sexual contact are consensual. He says it is "nonsense" to claim that some guards conspire to use sexual assault as a tool of manipulation.

Roscoe Pondexter of Fresno, who served as a guard for eight years in Soledad and Corcoran prisons before resigning in 1996, says he personally reported to superiors five inmate complaints of sexual assault. "They weren't taken seriously," he says. "There was no great effort to substantiate them."

Pondexter says that, typically, victims tend to be troublemakers, child molesters and rapists, the very people whom guards do not find sympathetic. He says guards feel that such victims "got what they deserved. They did it to someone on the streets, so now someone is doing it to them."

People on the outside blink in bewilderment at the idea of one man raping another. The confusion begins with any notion that these are typical homosexual activities. Technically, that may be true, but the term is not valid in the eyes of the most important definers--the prisoners. As in heterosexual rapes, primary motivations are an intermingling of power, domination and anger. It is accepted dogma in prison that rapists are not homosexuals, says Chuck Terry, 50, an assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at St. Louis University who served time in California and Oregon prisons for heroin use. The distinction allows predators to masquerade their activities as super-masculine.

Convicted rapists and child molesters are always targets of prison rapists, but also at grave risk are inmates who are young and naive, short-termers, or those who are effeminate in appearance or manner and not aggressive in defending themselves. Their attackers are generally gang members in for long-term violent offenses.

A former sex criminal, who asked not to be identified, describes how it "goes down," as though relating a trip to the grocery store. Since his release from California's Chuckawalla Valley State Prison, he has become a drug dealer in Southern California and, his acquaintances say, is almost certainly a murderer.

"The biggest man, strongest man [in prison] was a friend of mine, Bo, from Washington, D.C.," the former inmate says. "He raped about 20 men. He had a fetish. On the outside, he raped women for a hobby. That's why he ended up there. But when he got into the penitentiary, a man was a desired thing for him. I helped him set up men and I would partake also. He was a good friend, but if he didn't like you, he'd rape you before he killed you.

"I used to sic Bo on a lot of men. White, black, Mexican. For all kinds of reasons. Maybe someone [would] be sitting here and not get up fast enough. We rolled with the Black Guerrilla Family, part of the nationwide penitentiary circuit." As for homosexuals or men with light skin, "they'd be raped all the time. Once you turned 'em, they gonna be women from then on. Aryan Nation did their own people, too. If we had one who didn't have any backbone, we might trade him to them for a favor and they'd do the same."

Jim Hogshire, 44, is a writer who has looked at bars from the wrong direction. He is the author of "You're Going to Prison," a primer on the criminal justice system. "Prison is a deadly place occupied by weird guys who are usually not very bright, who are very aggressive and often sociopathic," Hogshire says. "These are guys who in the free world, if they can't get an online computer hook-up, they go berserk. Cutting in front of them in the chow line is something huge. It's like being transplanted back to the Middle Ages. Once you understand that, you can accept that rape is an extremely common occurrence, and anyone not morbidly obese or covered with sores faces the likelihood of having to submit to sexual assault."

He says the most vulnerable will be beaten and raped as often as necessary until they seek help from an "old man," a predator who will give protection but will also make sexual demands. "Once you've become someone's punk, you stay a punk and your old man will use you any way he wants. He might send you out to perform sexual acts for a marijuana joint, candy or anything else of value. You have become 'currency.' "

Male victims of prison rape very likely will react to the trauma of rape with similar emotions as female victims: shock, anger, guilt and humiliation, says Lara Stemple, executive director of Stop Prisoner Rape, which is based in Los Angeles. These feelings are intensified if they are raped repeatedly, which sometimes occurs for years. They also feel deep shame at being unable to defend themselves, and that failure destroys their sense of manhood, she says.

There is a perception that prison rapists are black and victims white, but many who have observed it say this is an oversimplification. However, most California prison confrontations--whether over gambling, drugs, sex or debts--do end up being played out along racial lines. Race is the prison fault line. Often, whites fit the prey profile more than blacks or Latinos because they commonly lack street smarts, and a higher proportion are in for

nonviolent drug or white-collar crimes. "Race is a factor to the extent that whatever race is predominant, they tend to victimize the minority," Wright says. "It comes down to the pool of prey versus the pool of predators, and whites aren't organized to protect each other and can be more easily picked off one by one."

The international organization Human Rights Watch is less sanguine on the subject. Its four-year study, called "No Escape" and released last year, concluded that "white inmates are disproportionately targeted for abuse." The report noncommittally cites two common theories for this: greater violence in the black criminal subculture and payback for past racial abuses.

Women prisoners are also not immune from sexual attack, but it almost always comes from male guards. The numbers are far fewer, but it is an egregious offense that has received greater public attention. Some who study male rape are critical of what they see as the lack of support from women's rape groups in focusing attention on the problem. "It's just not on the radar screen for anti-rape activists," Wright says. "Rape of men is about where rape of women was 50 years ago in terms of how the public sees it. So victims 'deal with it' and cover it up."

"Put it this way," Vincent Schiraldi says: "You're a women's group waging war on rapists--rapists are men! It's tough to retool, psychologically and organizationally, and expand your outreach. But this might change as the problem becomes better known."

Prison authorities often fall back on the theory that most prison sex is consensual--even though there are not enough homosexual men in prison to support the number of incidents. Additionally, since the range of coercion extends from brutal force to providing "protection" in exchange for exclusive sex, it is difficult to sort things out. Presumably because of that, and because of the fear of AIDS, California prisons officially prohibit all sexual contact between prisoners.

Prisoners nearing the end of their sentences are especially at risk because they fear having their term extended by fighting back. They just want to be left alone to serve their time, but they rarely are. Still, they keep their secrets to themselves. Jim Hogshire explains it by putting himself in the mind of a victim: "OK, I've gotta do this [endure rape], but I'm not telling anyone on the outside. And when I get out, I'll put it behind me.

"To them, the humiliation and hell of being punked-out is not as bad as getting a lifetime sentence for killing someone or even being killed," Hogshire continues. "It's an awful choice, but it's the only choice some guys get. And the choice is final. Many just kill themselves. Those who live and are released reenter society every bit as [screwed up] as you might expect."

The public also has another reason to fear the mental state of prison rape victims who have served their sentences. Many of them are carrying sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. Prison officials are aware that the combination of sexual assault and the rapid rise of these diseases creates a lethal mix in prisons, but many choose to ignore the problem, says Robert Dumond, a former mental health director with the Massachusetts penal system. As a case in point, he says that virtually no data has been collected

nationally showing the extent of infection arising from sexual assault, though "everyone knows it happens commonly."

Citing budget woes, the California Department of Corrections does not, as a rule, give blood tests to new inmates. The department, therefore, has no idea how many inmates have undetected HIV/AIDS or hepatitis, although an earlier state study indicated that about one-third of all new convicts have either hepatitis B or C. The corrections department says it does know that 20,434 inmates have hepatitis B or C; 742 have HIV and another 582 have full-blown AIDS, up from 157 in 1999. All of these sick inmates are housed in the general population. "We don't isolate because there is little risk of

infection except through blood or bodily fluids," a spokesman says.

Told of this practice, Dumond responds with a long, mirthless laugh. "That's unbelievable," he says. "No, that's frightening." Dumond now serves as a consultant to Stop Prisoner Rape, the organization co-founded by Stephen Donaldson. Years after being raped while jailed for his war protest, Donaldson was imprisoned again, this time for threatening medical personnel who refused to treat a hand he had injured. Donaldson was raped again--and caught the AIDS virus, which killed him after his release.

Is there anything that prisons can do day-to-day to diminish this predation? Hogshire believes so. He says, with some hyperbole, "They could stop this stuff tomorrow morning. If they sent perpetrators to Pelican Bay [an ultra-maximum-security prison] where they could spend their days in isolation, and if they also transferred their victims to other institutions without the snitch rap in their files [so it could not be learned later that they were informers], they would be scaring the hell out of would-be rapists and, at the same time, telling their victims that speaking up wouldn't mean a shiv in the back."

William Rigg believes that the number of incidents can be greatly reduced by prompt administrative action when a rapist is identified. "Single cell and walk alone," he says, meaning that contact with other inmates is minimized or eliminated.

Craig Haney is a psychology professor at UC Santa Cruz who has studied prison life. He says that one tool prison officials could use is conjugal visits, which are now barred in California prisons for inmates serving life sentences. He believes that such privileges would release pent-up sexual pressures and allow officials give-and-take-away leverage with inmates.

State and federal laws also would help, although finding legislators to champion the cause is nearly hopeless. "Prisoner-rights issues are dogs when it comes to legislation," Schiraldi says. "Helping inmates is nuclear waste, politically."

Just ask Cal Skinner, the former Illinois legislator who pushed for prison reforms. His opponent in the 2000 primary election accused him of being more interested in convicts than in constituents, and he was defeated. Skinner says his greatest frustration, however, was his inability to push through effective laws aimed at stopping prison rape in Illinois. That result is mirrored in other states where legislation also generally fails, he says. "There's no lobbyist crusading against prison rape. For a lawmaker, it's a mission without political reward."

Sacramento is silent on the issue. An official with the California Senate's Public Safety Committee, who asked not to be identified, says that he can't recall any bills introduced on the subject.

Congress is considering action against rape in the form of "The Prison Rape Reduction Act," which has strong bipartisan support. Whether President Bush signs it into law or not is still an open question. The bill, which applies to both state and federal prisons, requires the Justice Department to create a clearinghouse for statistics on prison rape nationwide, ties federal funding for prisons to levels of rape occurrences, provides a hotline for victims and creates a training program for corrections officials. It's not exactly a Magna Carta on the subject, but, as Schiraldi says, "It's a start."

When prison rapes occur, responsibility for prosecuting perpetrators falls on local district attorneys. The problem is, Schiraldi says, that D.A.s are often loath to file charges because those prosecutions could be seen as coming to the defense of criminals. And in most jurisdictions, spending local tax money to protect criminals, even if they're victims, becomes a politically risky act.

Consequently, the main hope for convicts who believe they have been wronged has always been the courts. However, because inmates often have to serve as their own attorneys, the barriers are high, James Robertson says. For an inmate to prove a violation of the 8th Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment, for example, he must show that the prison staff practiced deliberate indifference, which is exceedingly difficult. Historically, inmates file lawsuits in federal courts because they distrust state courts. However, the

federal Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996 makes it much more difficult to prevail in federal court, often leaving inmates feeling as if they have no place to go for legal protection.

Forcing prisoners to seek shelter from "cruel and unusual punishment" at the hands of other prisoners is itself an indictment of the American justice system, Vincent Schiraldi says. Or, as the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky said more pointedly in "The House of the Dead," a novel based upon the four years he served for sedition in Russia's abysmal 19th century prisons: The degree to which a society is civilized can be judged by entering its prisons.

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