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Rape, How Funny Is It?

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.

November 03, 2002|Fred Dickey | Fred Dickey last wrote for the magazine about activist Tammy Bruce.

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.

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