NEW YORK — He was only trying to protest the Vietnam War and follow a creed of nonviolent resistance. But after he was gang-raped 50 times in the Washington, D.C., jail, Stephen Donaldson started a war of his own.
It all began on a hot August afternoon in 1973, when he was arrested at a White House pray-in. For reasons of conscience, the Quaker activist refused to post $10 bail and was placed in a cell with other first-time offenders.
Then, without warning, he was sent to a wing with hardened criminals.
Told that some inmates wanted to meet him, Donaldson went to their cell. Within seconds, the men beat him savagely, tore off his clothes and repeatedly assaulted him. He managed to escape two days later, and only after his attackers whispered that a guard was coming down the hall.
Like thousands before him, Donaldson was physically and emotionally traumatized by prison rape. It would take him years to recover. Unlike most victims, however, he was determined to speak out against a crime that has reached epidemic proportions in some U.S. prisons--and is rarely discussed.
"I couldn't pretend it never happened," he says. "Some prison officials figure people will keep quiet, and I'm convinced the D.C. jail set me up, to teach me a political lesson. But they miscalculated with me. I was just beginning to fight back, and I'm still fighting."
Today, Donaldson is president of Stop Prison Rape, the only national advocacy group focused solely on the problem. He debates the issue in public forums and helped draft a friend of the court brief in Farmer vs. Brennan, a watershed prison rape case awaiting a Supreme Court decision.
Next week, he's scheduled to testify in a hearing on prison rape before the Massachusetts Legislature, and he'll deliver a shocking estimate: Based on several decades of studies, Donaldson says, there are more than a quarter-million sexual assaults on inmates each year in American correctional facilities.
Across the nation, a handful of prosecutors, attorneys, psychologists, religious leaders and politicians are trying to root out a cancer that is deeply ingrained in the criminal justice system, yet traditionally rouses little concern. Indeed, at a time when anger over crime is escalating, many find it hard to feel compassion for men who are abused behind bars.
Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican and member of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, says society pays a heavy price for such attitudes: "We ignore this prison-rape problem at our peril, because there is a great potential for these victims to commit worse crimes when they get out of jail. For anyone who cares about safety, it's a matter of common sense as well as compassion."
Specter speaks from experience; he was district attorney of Philadelphia in 1968 when a pioneering study was done of prison rape in that city's jail system. The conclusions were devastating: Nearly 1,000 men were raped each year in custody, and there were no programs to control the violence.
Since then, studies in other states have found similar horrors, as well as evidence that many inmates are coerced into long-term sexual "coupling" with stronger prisoners simply to ward off the possibility of repeated gang rapes.
But there has been little national response. Meanwhile, AIDS is spreading rapidly in prisons and jails. In 1989, there were 14.65 AIDS cases per 100,000 in the general population, but the rate for state and federal prisons was 202 cases per 100,000, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Only Vermont and Mississippi provide condoms to inmates who request them, as do jails in Philadelphia, San Francisco and New York City. Nationwide, there are an estimated 50,000 prisoners infected with HIV and the numbers are growing each year, says Nancy Mahon, director of the New York-based AIDS in Prison Project. There are few HIV counseling programs for those in custody.
"This is a powder keg waiting to explode," she says. "As we put more people in jail, you have to wonder about the medical consequences, and AIDS is one of them. If you put a kid in jail for petty theft and then he gets raped, there's a whole downward cycle for him. And HIV could be the final insult."
It's a nightmare without end for victims, and every so often a gruesome prison rape story finds its way into the media. Then it's forgotten.
Several days after his trauma, Donaldson held a news conference in Washington and later appeared on talk shows. He was the first American to personally describe such sexual terror, and he hoped reforms would follow. By year's end, however, his story had faded from view.
"The public indifference on this is staggering," Donaldson says. "And it's harder for someone like me, because the trauma continues to haunt you. You can be tormented by this. So often, there's just nowhere to turn."