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Rape used as control in U.S. prisons


Many prisoners are targeted for sexual exploitation the minute they enter a penal facility; their age, looks, sexual preference and other characteristics mark them as candidates for maltreatment. In a new groundbreaking report, Human Rights Watch documents the widespread prisoner-on-prisoner rape in U.S. men’s prisons. The rights group accuses state authorities of not taking measures to prevent and punish rape and, in many cases, for allowing this cruel form of abuse to persist.

One reads that in extreme incidents prisoners find themselves the “slaves” of their rapists. Forced to satisfy another man’s sexual appetites upon demand, they may also be responsible for washing his clothes, massaging his back, cooking his food and cleaning his cell. They are frequently “rented out” for sex services, sold or even auctioned off to other inmates.

One prisoner from Arkansas wrote to Human Rights Watch: “I had no choice but to submit to being Inmate B’s prison wife. Out of fear for my life, I submitted to [him]. In all reality, I was his slave, as the Officials of the Arkansas Department of Corrections … did absolutely nothing.”

“Rapes are unimaginably vicious and brutal,” writes Joanne Mariner, deputy director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, and author of “No Escape: Male Rape in U.S. Prisons.” Gang assaults are not uncommon, and victims may be left beaten, bloody and even dead; they almost always suffer from extreme psychological stress, including nightmares, deep depression, shame and self-hatred, which may lead to suicide. There are also known cases whereby the victim has contracted HIV.

No conclusive national data exists regarding the prevalence of this phenomenon, but the most recent statistical survey, published in the Prison Journal, revealed that 21 percent of inmates in seven Midwestern prisons had experienced at least one episode of pressured or forced sex since being incarcerated, and at least 7 percent had been raped in their facility.

Correctional authorities generally deny that rape is a serious problem. In Human Rights Watch’s survey of all 50 states, not one correctional authority reported abuse rates even approaching those found by the rights group. The authorities’ reluctance to acknowledge the scale of the violation is reflected not only in misleading official statistics, but also in a glaringly inadequate response to incidents of rape.

When an inmate informs an officer he has been threatened with rape or, worse, actually assaulted, his complaint is seldom investigated, and only in rare instances is an inmate protected from further abuse. “U.S. state prisons have failed to take even obvious, basic steps necessary to tackle prison rape,” Mariner writes. “This deliberate indifference has had tragic consequences.”

In the report, one reads of M.R., a Texas inmate who was violently raped and beaten several times over a period of several months by the same prisoner. Fearful for his life, he reported the abuse to the prison authorities, but received no protection. In fact one investigator dismissed the complaint as a “lovers’ quarrel.” Finally one day the rapist showed up in M.R.’s cell and attacked him. M.R. suffered a broken jaw, left collarbone and finger, a dislocated left shoulder, lacerations to his scalp and two major concussions that caused internal bleeding. The rapist was never criminally prosecuted.

Why, one might ask, do prison authorities turn a blind eye to this horrific phenomenon? While Human Rights Watch does not directly deal with this issue, it appears that the authorities’ lack of response is premeditated. Rape is an effective, albeit ruthless, mechanism of inmate control.

By allowing rape to go on, the “correctional” authorities ensure that prisoner violence is contained within the cells. Frustrated prisoners are permitted to release aggression on condition that they direct it against other inmates, not the authorities. That the victims, who comprise as much as 20 percent of 2 million inmates held in U.S. prisons and jail, live in perpetual fear is also conducive to control. Divide and conquer is the name of the game; the fact that it amounts to horrendous violations of human rights does not really interest the prison authorities.

Neve Gordon teaches in the department of politics and government at Ben Gurion University, Israel.

National Catholic Reporter, September 14, 2001