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Male Rape in US Prisons


In April of 2001, Human Rights Watch released a report called No Escape: Male Rape in U.S. Prison. The report, written by human rights lawyer (and CounterPunch contributor) Joanne Mariner, contains dozens of first-hand accounts of prisoner rape and sexual assault, stories that are both horrifying and sobering.

Some of the most frightening passages in the book, though, are not in the main body of the text. They’re in the appendix, which features letters that state corrections departments coughed up after Human Rights Watch requested information about sexual assault behind bars.

In the appendix, the reader learns what these corrections departments, despite countless stories of human suffering to the contrary, are still saying about sexual assault.

From the Kentucky Department of Corrections: “These instances are very rare, (but) … we do not maintain a central list of the disposition of these cases.”

From the Alaska Department of Corrections: “We, luckily, have no need to keep statistics, as this has not been a problem.”

From the Connecticut Department of Corrections: “Our department does not maintain statistics regarding inmate on inmate rape or sexual abuse primarily because it is seldom reported ….”

In state after state, the officials running the prisons disavow any knowledge of a problem that, according to the best research on the subject, affects as many as one in five male prisoners.

For that reason, and many others, No Escape is a wrenching book to read. It’s also one of the most in-depth, authoritative, and comprehensive books written on the subject of prisoner rape. The book provides a review of the conditions that contribute to prisoner rape–including the growth of the American prison population in the last 20 years, the privatization of the prison industry, and the crippling of prisoners’ legal rights through the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996.

No Escape also reviews some of the realities of prisoner rape that are misunderstood by the public: that victims tend to be nonviolent offenders, young people, and first-timers; that victims are sometimes subjected to repeated abuse that can last for years; and that rape victims contract diseases like HIV and often suffer from crippling depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

All of these facts are brought to life in No Escape through the inclusion of prisoners’ first-hand accounts of rape. Human Rights Watch quotes men like B.J. from Connecticut (that peaceful state where rape is “seldom reported,” according to the DOC) who describes being assaulted after he was celled with a known rapist.

“I remained in shock and paralyzed in thought for two days until I was able to muster the courage to report it, this the most dreadful and horrifying experience of my life,” B.J. writes.

Then there are prisoners like M.P. from Arkansas, who describes submitting to life as a sexual slave for another prisoner, and S.H., from Texas, who was rented out for sexual favors. S.H. filed five grievances, eight appeals and a federal lawsuit in an attempt to get some relief for his situation. He was denied any remedy, every step of the way.

That institutional indifference to the problem of sexual assault behind bars is documented in No Escape’s final chapter, where Mariner notes that “rape occurs in U.S. prisons because corrections officials, to a surprising extent, do little to stop it from occurring.”

Even simple steps that could reduce the likelihood of sexual assault–such as realistic prisoner orientation programs and careful classification of prisoners by risk of victimization–are relatively uncommon, Human Rights Watch reports. Prisoners’ complaints of rape are not taken seriously and avenues of legal redress are typically blocked.

“Rape is not an inevitable consequence of prison life, but it certainly is a predictable one if little is done to prevent it and punish it,” Mariner concludes.

The two years since No Escape was published have seen a major surge of advocacy to address sexual assault behind bars. No Escape was covered on the front page of the New York Times, introducing many members of the public to a reality they had never considered. Since then, publications such as the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, Mother Jones, and The Weekly Standard have also prominently covered the issue.

No Escape has served as a powerful resource for Stop Prisoner Rape (SPR), the only national organization solely devoted to ending sexual violence behind bars. Stop Prisoner Rape had been around for more than 20 years before No Escape, but the book’s authoritative documentation of the problem has proved to be a critical tool in SPR’s arsenal.

Since the publication of No Escape, SPR and Human Rights Watch have worked together (along with others) to launch a listserv, sponsor a national conference, and lobby for the first-ever federal legislation to address rape in prison, known as the Prison Rape Reduction Act. In fact, No Escape was cited during Congressional hearings on the bill. The legislation, which is still pending, would authorize a study to document the extent of the problem; and create a program of standards and incentives to help corrections officials detect and prevent prisoner rape.

For men and women behind bars, rape remains a real threat. SPR continues to hear from prisoners every day who are being victimized–prisoners who still face the kinds of brutality documented in No Escape. SPR now offers survivors of sexual assault a range of information and referrals, the chance to post stories on its heavily trafficked website, and the opportunity to speak out through contacts with reporters and researchers.

That’s a powerful legacy for a single book, but No Escape tells a powerful story. It’s one we all need to understand.

No Escape: Male Rape in U.S. Prisons is available from Human Rights Watch for $25 plus $5 shipping and handling. Contact: Publications Department, Human Rights Watch, 350 Fifth Ave., 34th Floor New York, N.Y. 10118-3299. The report is available online at

ALEX COOLMAN is the Communications Coordinator for Stop Prisoner Rape. SPR can be reached at 6303 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 204, Los Angeles, CA 90048.


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