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.