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Inside the Gulag

Rape in America’s Prisons

by DAVID ROSEN

In 2007, Brittney Allen Young, a transgender woman, was incarcerated in the Powledge men’s prison unit in Palestine, TX.  Her cellmate repeatedly overpowered and raped her.  She complained to prison authorities, but they dismissed her complaints for lack of a corroborating witness to the incidents.

Young was eventually transferred to the Hughes Unit in Gatesville, TX, where another inmate, this one HIV-positive, also assaulted and raped her.  She was eventually placed in protection detention where, as reported by the Dallas Voice, Young is today “locked up 23 hours a day, unable to participate in the educational, vocational and religious programs her attackers still enjoy.”

The prison-industrial complex is estimated to cost $80 billion annually to maintain.  It includes federal and state prisons (many run by private, for-profit corporations) as well as county and local jails, juvenile facilities and police lockups, halfway houses and probation programs.  According to the Justice Department (DoJ) data, 2.2 million people were incarcerated in 2010.  The U.S. operates the largest prison system in the world.

A series of recent DoJ reports shine a needed spotlight on rape and sexual victimization in U.S. prisons and jails.  It estimates that nearly 210,000 prisoners are abused annual and that abusers are split relatively evenly between fellow inmates and prison personnel.  In 2008, the DoJ’s Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 4.5 percent of all inmates reported sexual assaults.  Welcome to the American gulag.

* * *

Roderick Johnson is another victim of the Texas “justice” system.  An out gay man, Johnson was incarcerated in the Allred prison, a maximum-security facility in Wichita Falls, TX, for nonviolent charges of burglary, cocaine possession and cashing a bad check.  Following unofficial prison custom, he was forced to become a sex slave for the Gangster Disciples, a major gang, and given the nickname, “Coco.”  As a slave, he made food and cleaned clothes for gang members and was regularly pimped out to other convicts for $10 a trick.

Over an 18-month period, Johnson was repeatedly orally and anally raped in prison cells, stairwells and showers.  According to the Daily Texan, the abuse got even more offensive. Johnson and a mentally ill man were forced to masturbate each other “while forcing the man to repeatedly insert a finger into Johnson’s anus and then lick that finger.”

In 2003, Congress passed and President Bush signed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) to end such abuse.  It was designed to protect from sexual abuse inmates in all federal, state and local facilities.  Two recent DoJ reports detail the relative progress the prison system has made in stopping sexual abuse.  The “Report on Sexual Victimization in Prisons and Jails” and the “Sexual Victimization Reported by Former State Prisoners, 2008” are powerful indictments of a system in crisis.

Sexual minorities seem to suffer the most abuse.  Transgender adults, gay men, lesbian women and juveniles of both sexes (but especially LGBT) are the principle targets of prison sex abuse. The DoJ study in 2009 found that juvenile LGBT prisoners report sexual assaults 12 times more often than straight youths and National Center for Transgender Equality says transgender adult inmates are sexually abused 13 times more often than other inmates.

Like men’s prisons, women’s prisons are venues of extensive sexual abuse.  It is not uncommon for guards to harass, degrade, grope and sexually abuse female inmates during frisks and body searches.  Also common are stories of guards watching women shower, disrobe or use the toilet as well as trading sex with female inmates for goods and privileges. Bisexual female inmates were targeted for sexual assaults more than heterosexual female inmates.

The survey of former prisoners is based on data collected from 518,800 men and women who were on supervised parole in mid-2008.  It found that 9 percent, 46,700 prisoners, had experienced some form of sexual abuse while incarcerated.

An estimated 3.7 percent (19,200) said they were forced or pressured into having nonconsensual sex with another inmate.  The rate of victimization by other inmates is highest among self-described homosexual (39%) and bisexual males (34%) at rates about 10 times higher than those reported by heterosexual males (3.5%).

Of those victimized, a quarter reported they had been physically held down or restrained and another quarter had been physically harmed or injured.  In addition, nearly a quarter (23%) reported serious injuries, including anal/vaginal tearing (12%), chipped or lost teeth (12%), being knocked unconscious (8%), internal injuries (6%), knife/stab wounds (4%) or broken bones (4%).

The study also found that an estimated 5.3 percent (27,500) of former prisoners surveyed reported an incident that involved prison personnel.  Although any sexual contact between staff and inmates is legally nonconsensual, former prisoners said some incidents were unwilling and some were “willing.”  Respondents reported the sexual contact had involved some form of coercion whether involving favors, special privileges or verbal intimidation.  Surprising, about 7 in 8 reported the perpetrators was of the opposite sex, most often a male inmate with female staff.  Recently, Prison Legal News detailed rape and sexual abuse by prison and jail workers in 39 states.

* * *

Former prisoners and some honest guards, let alone innumerable books and movies, will remind anyone willing to listen that prison is a living hell.  Sexual abuse in prison resembles something out of Dante’s 8th level of Hell, Malebolge, an amphitheater-shaped pit in which the sexually vulnerable are whipped, ducked in boiling pitch and their feet licked by flames.

Those targeted for sexual exploitation in prison suffer innumerable forms of degradation, none worse than sexual violation. They often face bitter slurs and called derogatory names of the opposite gender.  And if they complain, victims face public shame before fellow prisoners and other forms of retaliation.

Prison officials long took a blame-the-victim attitude to dismiss such complaints.  If that failed, they often insisted on a witness’ corroboration, knowing full well it could not be found. Sometimes things could get more mean spirited with prison employees conspiring with prisoners to beat up or rape gay convicts or placing them in cells with well-known abusers sex predators.

The 2003 PREA legislation has begun to address some of worst aspects of sexual abuse in the prisons.  It calls for additional staff training, more ways for inmates to report sexual abuse privately, increased staff and video monitoring, prompt medical and psychological attention for victims, no cross-gender searches of female inmates by male staff and disciplinary actions for staff or inmate perpetrators.  In addition, it called for improved reporting procedures with audits every three years.  The current DoJ reports are fruits of the Act.

In an excellent piece in the New York Review of Books, David Kaiser and Lovisa Stannow warn that for all PRAE’s positive features, “Enforcement remains an issue, however.”  They remind readers, “Enforcement of the standards will rest in the first instance with corrections agencies themselves: the state departments of corrections and the county sheriffs’ offices that oversee most prisons and jails, respectively.”

They point out, “While there is no procedure for the enforcement of individual complaints under PREA, the attorney general is responsible for making sure that federal prisons comply with the new standards.”  The legislation has little enforcement authority over either state correctional authorities or private prison contractors.  For both, the only enforcement mechanism is the threat of losing either federal funding or a contract.  Sure.

Prison sexual abuse is the most egregious expression of America’s failed system of “justice.”  It’s good that PREA exists.

The prison-industrial complex, like the military-industrial system, is a self-perpetuating racket in which victory means failure.  Like the military-industrial system’s demand for an eternal enemy, the prison-industrial complex would collapse without an inexhaustible stream of criminals.  It’s cheaper at $80 billion a year to run a fractured prison system than address the causes of “crime.”

David Rosen writes the “Media Current” blog for Filmmaker and regularly contributes to AlterNet, Huffington Post and the Brooklyn Rail; he can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net.