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Brutality behind bars

Savage prison gang rapes turn many run-of-the-mill prisoners into violent felons-in-waiting.

When the gavel came down, a Texas man named John found himself sentenced to an eight-year prison term for burglary. He was sent to the Beto Unit, known for being the roughest prison in Texas.

It didn't take John long to figure out why. Shortly after he arrived, John-a 140-pound white man-was viciously gang-raped by black inmates.

The experience left John with a burning hatred for African-Americans. A gang of white supremacists-who had reportedly asked guards to put John in the black section of the prison-now encouraged him to join them in exchange for protection.

Upon his release, John's rage exploded into violence. Riding in a pickup late one night, John and two friends spotted an African-American ex-con named James Byrd, and picked him up. A few minutes later a fight broke out. John William King and his companions slashed Byrd's throat, tied him to the back of the truck, and dragged him to death.

Mr. King's prison experience in no way justifies his heinous crime. It may offer some explanation.

Were he alive today, Dante might well have placed an American prison in one of his circles of hell. While the tortures suffered by inmates may not be eternal, they're a daily reality for thousands of men.

Especially men who are young, slender, and white-first offenders who lack street smarts. These are the "fresh fish" who are reeled into the cells of sexual predators-the prison piranha who gang-rape and torture newcomers in a process known as "turning out." Once turned out, a "punk" is fair game for other inmates-offenders who may rape him again and again unless he agrees to become the sex slave of a fellow prisoner. This inmate will protect his new punk from the others in exchange for sex.

But while a prison "daddy" can protect a fellow prisoner from the pain of repeated gang rapes, he cannot protect him from disease. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, AIDS is now five times more prevalent inside prison than out. And the Bureau notes that in New York State, HIV has reached epidemic proportions with more than 10 percent of inmates testing positive for the virus. In practical terms, this means the punishment for stealing a bag of chips from 7-Eleven is a potential death sentence. Victor Hugo's Jean Val Jean in Les Miserables, who served 20 years for stealing a loaf of bread, got off easy by comparison.

Poorly paid corrections officers, far from preventing the assaults, are often part of the problem. Some accept bribes from inmates to put youthful new inmates into their cells; others reward offenders for raping offenders considered disciplinary problems. Many guards ignore the screams and cries for help that indicate a gang rape is in progress. Worst of all are guards who themselves rape.

There's no shortage of victims to choose from. The most comprehensive data on prison rape comes from a 1994 survey of the Nebraska prison system. In that study, conducted by Dr. Cindy Struckman-Johnson, 22 percent of male respondents said they had been either pressured or forced into sex acts; 25 percent of these incidents qualified as gang rape. Inmates identified prison staff as perpetrators in 18 percent of the attacks.

How many victims? Whenever there is a hard-to-count social problem, such as homelessness, big numbers get tossed around by interested parties. But add up the evidence from that Nebraska study and others from New York, California, and Philadelphia. Filter in the sad fact that, according to Bureau of Justice statistics, some 6 million individuals are under federal and state prison jurisdiction at some point during the year. Don't forget the several million who float through city jails, which are sometimes the worst places to spend time. Put it all together and the estimate of Stop Prisoner Rape, a nationally recognized nonprofit, does not sound incredible: Some 600,000 men and boys, and 12,000 women and girls, are sexually assaulted every year in America's jails and prisons, with many raped multiple times.

For the most part, the U.S. government ignores these victims. The government doesn't even count prison rapes when it compiles rape statistics-despite the fact that a man in prison is far more likely to be raped than is a woman who is not incarcerated.

Part of the problem is that few of these assaults are reported, never mind prosecuted. Prisoners fear retaliation by other inmates, staff attitudes, or being put into protective custody. Most of all, they're suffused with a deep sense of shame over what they consider their lost manhood. Young inmates have it worst. Juveniles locked up with adults are five times more likely to report being sexually assaulted than kids sent to juvenile facilities.

The rape itself is just the beginning. Once released, rape victims bring AIDS into their communities, along with a flood of rage. Prison rape converts run-of-the-mill criminals-drug users, car thieves, and turnstile jumpers-into violent felons-in-waiting. Once released, they have a higher propensity to visit violence upon others. That's an ominous detail, given that the vast majority of prisoners are eventually released.

The reality of rape behind bars bloats the crime rate in other ways, as well. Michael Horowitz, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., says a federal judge told him that judges are reluctant to lock up small, white first offenders because they know what will happen to them. And a New York City detective told Mr. Horowitz that he knew of cops who routinely bullied information out of white boys or slightly built black kids, exploiting their fear of prison rape.

And yet, politicians and the mainstream media have largely ignored the problem of prison rape. They're about to be jolted awake.

Mr. Horowitz is about to apply the media equivalent of an electronic cattle prod against slow-moving lawmakers and journalists. A veteran of political wars over human-rights issues such as religious persecution, genocide in Sudan, and international sex trafficking (see sidebar), the feisty Mr. Horowitz is gathering together old allies from both the political right and left to begin fighting anew on behalf of prison rape victims.

These political soldiers may fight largely alone. Despite the magnitude of the problem, many other groups-even those committed to human rights-are reluctant to touch this issue. The reasons are disturbing. Civil-rights activists keep mum because prison rape is often a black-on-white phenomenon; they're afraid of feeding incipient racism. Gay-rights groups also shy away from the problem because they fear that publicity about male-to-male rape will advance the idea that homosexuals as a group are predators. The reality is that most prison rapists are heterosexual; they rape men partly because women are unavailable, and partly out of a desire to gain power in a setting that strips them of all normal authority over their lives.

And human-rights organizations? They're often dominated by feminists who appear to care far more about "politically correct" prison assaults: those involving male guards raping female prisoners, even though male victims vastly outnumber female victims.

Their help may become superfluous in any case if the Horowitz coalition succeeds in getting Congress to pass the Prison Rape Reform Act of 2001. The proposed legislation would provide for hearings to determine the impact of prison rape and establish standards for reducing and eliminating it. An Office of Prevention would gather reports of rapes, mandate the removal of juveniles from adult facilities, and develop what prison experts say is a crucial weapon in the war against assaults behind bars: a means of confidentially reporting complaints for action.

The legislation would also force accountability onto the shoulders of those who run America's prisons. Annual reviews of prisons would expose those with the highest rape rates; the people who run them would be forced to explain to Congress why they couldn't get the assaults under control.

At least one sheriff didn't need congressional prodding before attempting to reign in the rape epidemic. The San Francisco County Jail System has "the best program we found," Mr. Horowitz said. It's run by an unorthodox former attorney named Michael Hennessey. Some 20 years ago, Mr. Hennessey took part in a National Institutes of Mental Health study on prison rape; he then designed and implemented a protocol for dealing with the problem. "He's been able to observe firsthand the dramatic effect of having a very good prison rape protocol," said Roanne Withers of Fort Bragg, Calif., a former executive director of Stop Prisoner Rape.

The Hennessey tactics include separating violent and nonviolent offenders, and steering the vulnerable away from the dangerous. He designed two new jails to avoid "blind spots" where rapes are likely to take place, and developed a procedure for the treatment of rape victims. Those strategies are clearly working. In 1998, San Francisco's jails, with a daily population of about 2,000, had just nine reported rapes-far below the estimated national average.

If the public wonders why other sheriffs and prison officials don't seem to care about crimes against criminals, perhaps the answer can be found in a disturbing statistic uncovered by The Boston Globe six years ago. The Globe polled 400 registered Massachusetts voters, asking them if society accepts prison rape as part of the price criminals pay for breaking the law. Fifty percent answered yes. To put it bluntly, Americans don't care much about prisoner rape.

Charles Colson, chairman of Prison Fellowship Ministries, finds this attitude appalling. "Prisoners have a right not to be brutalized, and we should not tolerate it," he said. "I know it's all too common, because in the last 25 years I've been inside 600 prisons, and I've talked to the victims." Others who have peered into the grisly world of prison rape also warn that if Americans are unconcerned about stopping assaults for the sake of the prisoners, we will end up paying a steep price.

Just ask Roanne Withers. Some 15 years ago, a man who had just been released from prison sexually assaulted Ms. Withers. She's now convinced that he was, in a twisted way, attempting to regain his sense of manhood.

It's a grim reminder that the horrors of a thousand prison hells, left unchecked, may boil over onto more and more innocent victims.

Anne Morse

Anne Morse