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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.

"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."

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