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Monday, Jun. 24, 2002

Long ignored by the public, except as a staple of bad comedy routines, the problem of prison rape may finally be obtaining the national attention it deserves. A bill was just introduced in Congress to encourage state and federal authorities to address the epidemic of rape in the country's prison facilities.

The draft legislation, modestly titled the Prison Rape Reduction Act, was introduced in the House and Senate on June 13. Its sponsors are a bipartisan group that includes Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Representative Bobby Scott (D-Va.), Representative Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.).

Underlying the bill's measured language and carefully-crafted provisions is a dramatic and painful reality. Recognized by the Supreme Court as form of cruel and unusual punishment, prison rape violates the Constitution, offends fundamental principles of human dignity, and shames the society that allows it to occur.

Anomaly or Epidemic?

Prison authorities, unsurprisingly, generally claim that prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse is an exceptional occurrence rather than a systemic problem. In response to a survey conducted by Human Rights Watch, only Texas, Ohio, Florida, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons said that they had more than fifty reported incidents in a given year, numbers which, because of the large size of their prison systems, still suggest extremely low rates of victimization.

In December 2000, the Prison Journal published a study of inmates in seven men's prison facilities in four states. It found that 21 percent of the inmates had experienced at least one episode of pressured or forced sexual contact since being incarcerated, and nearly one out of ten had been raped.

An earlier study of the Nebraska prison system produced similar findings, with 22 percent of male inmates reporting that they had been pressured or forced to have sexual contact against their will while incarcerated. Of these, over 50 percent had submitted to forced anal sex at least once.

Unpunished Crimes

The full horror of prison rape cannot be conveyed by statistics. Each rape is a human tragedy, one likely to leave deep psychic scars.

M.R., a Texas inmate who was interviewed by Human Rights Watch, told of being raped eight different times from July through November 1995. The first time M.R. was raped - "which felt like having a tree limb shoved up into me" - he reported the incident, and the prison's Internal Affairs department interviewed both him and the perpetrator to find out what had happened.

M.R. was terrified to speak of the incident in front of the other inmate, but he managed to describe the story in detail, while the perpetrator claimed the sex was consensual. After hearing both prisoners, the investigator told them that "lovers' quarrels" were not of interest to Internal Affairs, and sent them back to their cells.

"The guy shoved me into his house and raped me again," M.R. later told Human Rights Watch. "It was a lot more violent this time."

M.R. spent several months trying to escape the rapist, facing repeated abuse. He filed grievances over the first couple of rapes in an effort to draw the attention of prison officials; they were returned saying the sexual assaults never occurred. On the last day of December, the rapist showed up on M.R.'s wing and threatened to kill M.R. with a combination lock. "I was in the dayroom. I remember eating a piece of cornbread and the next thing I knew I woke up in the hospital," M.R. recalled. A room full of prisoners saw the rapist nearly kill M.R. and then rape him in the middle of the dayroom.

The rapist hit M.R. so hard with the lock that when M.R. regained consciousness he could read the word "Master" - the lockmaker - on his forehead. Four years later, a Human Rights Watch researcher could still see the round impression of the lock on the right side of his forehead. In all, M.R. suffered a broken neck, jaw, left collarbone, and finger; a dislocated left shoulder; two major concussions, and lacerations to his scalp that caused bleeding on the brain.

Sexual Slavery

In extreme cases, prison rape is a form of sexual slavery. J.D., another Texas inmate, told Human Rights Watch that he was violently raped by his cellmate, a heavy, muscular man, in 1993. "From that day on," he said, "I was classified as a homosexual and was sold from one inmate to the next."

Although J.D. informed prison staff that he had been raped, and was transferred to another part of the prison, he was soon raped by another inmate known as Blue Top. Not only did Blue Top himself abuse J.D. sexually, he also "rented" J.D.'s sexual services to other inmates.

Draft Federal Legislation

The pending bill proposes a modest series of measures to encourage public authorities to address the horror of prison rape. It establishes a commission to draft national standards to prevent and punish prison rape, but, using a special opt-out mechanism, it is careful not to impose these standards on state prison systems.

Considering the magnitude of the problem, the draft legislation seems surprisingly unambitious in its approach. Yet what makes it historic is the fact that it exists at all.

It is time that society stops laughing about the problem of prison rape, and starts doing something about it. The present legislation makes a good starting point.

Joanne Mariner is deputy director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch. She is the author of Human Rights Watch's book-length report on prison rape, No Escape: Male Rape in U.S. Prisons, which provided the basis for the present piece.

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