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March 23, 2007 - Drug War Chronicle (US)

Report: Prison Rape and the War on Drugs

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Sexual assaults on prisoners is an endemic problem in America, not an isolated one, the war on drugs is making the problem worse, and drug war prisoners are among those most likely to be victimized, according to a report released Thursday. The report, "Stories from Inside: Prisoner Rape and the War on Drugs," (.pdf) by the human rights group Stop Prisoner Rape, calls prisoner rape "a human rights crisis of appalling magnitude."

Hard numbers are hard to come up with for a crime in which humiliation, stigma, the fear of retaliation -- and perhaps officials' fear of embarrassment or lawsuits -- inhibits reporting, but according to preliminary reports from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which is setting up a nationwide, anonymous reporting system, 4% of prisoners reported being sexually assaulted within the last year. According to survey research cited in the report, as many as 20% of male prisoners and 25% of female prisoners have been victims of sexual assault in jail or prison. With a jail and prison population now nearing 2.3 million, the number of victims could be in the hundreds of thousands.

For male prisoners, the most common pattern is sexual assault by other male prisoners. For female prisoners, it is most often sexual assault by guards or other prison staff.

Even the reported numbers may be low, according to some experts. Dr. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist specializing in mental health in prison and especially the mental health of prisoners who have been sexually assaulted, told Drug War Chronicle the numbers may be much higher.

"My estimate is that it is much more widespread than the statistics show," said Kupers, who has published frequently on prison rape and testified as an expert witness on behalf of prison rape victims. "I think the 20% figure is low for a couple of reasons. First, people don't report because they're afraid of the stigma. Men feel it is unmanly and won't admit it. There is also the fear of retaliation in prison, whether from staff or other prisoners. Secondly, a lot of sexual activity is not defined as rape by the participants. A young and fair male enters prison and is told by an older prisoner 'I'm going to have sex with you, and if you agree I won't beat you up and I'll protect you from other prisoners.' The young man agrees and becomes a 'willing' partner, but it's rape, it's coerced out of fear. These guys might say they're not being raped, but they are."

What happened to Chance Martin in 1973 was not pretty, but not unusual. The university-bound Indiana youth was arrested at a hotel party after another guest dropped a piece of hashish in the lobby and was thrown into the Lake County Jail in Crown Point. There, he was attacked and sexually assaulted by six other inmates in an unmonitored group cell.

"'General pop' was a large cage holding about 40 men," he recounted in the report. "It was the dead of the night when I got there. My cellmates were all awaiting trial or serving county sentences. One was a blond man with a mustache whose face was beaten to a pulp -- and who kept strictly to himself. Finding me sitting hopelessly on my bunk, a trustee insisted that I join a card game to 'cheer me up.' The game only lasted three hands. It then became a demand for sex. Threats were made pointing out the example of the cellie with the battered face.

"Driving their point home, four other trustees jammed my ribs with broomsticks and mop handles. I tried to call for help. Repeatedly I had my breath beat from my lungs. Curled up on the floor, my arms protected my head. Dark memories recall being dragged to a bunk obscured by army blankets at the farthest end of the cell from the turnkey's office. One guy said, 'Now you have to give me head.' I had never even heard the term before. The scariest part was I lacked the first clue what was going to go down until it already happened. I'm glad that there were only six guys. Six is only the best of my recollection. It might have been more. I don't recall their faces, except a couple. I didn't even see most of their faces.

"There was near-zero supervision in that jail. No guard had line of sight into that cell. The guards' office was at the end of a hallway at the cellblock's end, and their TV was blaring 24/7."

From jail, Martin enlisted in the armed forces and went to Vietnam as part of a plea bargain to avoid any further time behind bars. There, he began drinking heavily and using drugs, a pattern he kept up back in the States. He suffered emotional problems and blew through three marriages. Now, he's a social justice activist in San Francisco who works in a law office by day and manages at low-income high-rise at night.

"It's been a long time and I don't get nightmares about it anymore, but I can still get panicky and I tend to fall into not trusting people," Martin told Drug War Chronicle. "I'm suspicious of hidden agendas when people are being nice. I can't form concrete interpersonal relationships. I'm not a complete basket case, but it's something that's always there," he said.

While Martin confided in friends about his rape, he didn't come out publicly until he found himself trying to explain to a San Francisco Chronicle reporter interviewing him about his homeless activism why he had ended up joining the military during Vietnam. "One of the Stop Prisoner Rape people read that and contacted me, and before you know it, I'm a survivor advocate," he laughed. "You try to create something good even out of a negative experience. This is going on every day, and I'm doing anything I can do to stop it from happening to the next person."

As a San Francisco resident, Martin is now a card-carrying medical marijuana user. "I knew when I got here I had been waiting my whole life for a place like this," he said. "I wasn't a criminal when I was smoking hash in high school and I'm not a criminal now. But for the sake of the drug war, I had my most basic human rights stripped away and was subjected to a brutal assault that left me with issues that lasted for years."

New York City resident Michael Piper wasn't raped, but was violently attacked fending off a failed attempt in jail in Tempe, Arizona, in 1974, after he was arrested for possession of a roach. The attack left him with serious head injuries, and a commitment to work for change. "My life has been challenging in many ways, and that attack was part of experiencing life for what it is," he told the Chronicle. "It's part of my motivation for speaking out. But I don't like the victim role; I don't play that," he said. "That attack increased my resilience."

It also hardened his attitude about the drug war. "Drug use is a personal choice," he said, extolling the virtues of various plants. "When we recognize we are not victims of drugs and they are not something we have to be protected from, then we can alter our environment and take responsibility for the way we live. It's a violation of natural law when a government says I can't interact with a seed that's a gift from the Creator."

Marilyn Shirley was sent to federal prison in 1998 on methamphetamine charges after a customer of her and her husband's auto repair business attempted to pay his bill with the drug. She was raped by a prison guard. In a rare turn of events, she was able to see him jailed after she kept the sweat pants she was wearing hidden in her cell for seven months.

"I didn't tell anyone at the prison except my welding boss, and I swore her to secrecy," Shirley told the Chronicle. "I didn't feel like I could trust any of them. But five minutes after I was released, I walked into the prison camp administration office and said 'Am I free?' and the lady said 'yes' and I handed her the sweat pants with his DNA on them. They called the FBI immediately and now he's doing 12 years himself."

Even with her tormentor now behind bars, it's not easy for Shirley. "I get severe panic attacks, I have to see two psychiatrists, I'm on five different kinds of medication," she said.

As with Martin and Piper, Shirley's experience has led her to speak out. "You can't just keep it bottled up inside you; it'll kill you," she said. "I spoke out because I feel like it might give other people confidence if I did. Something has to change. It's so easy to end up in prison; nowadays, it doesn't hardly take anything. It could be your wife, your kids, your mother."

"We hear stories like these from survivors from across the country on a daily basis," said Lovisa Stannow, co-executive director of Stop Prisoner Rape. "It's the most widespread and neglected human rights crisis in the country, and it's alarming on many levels," she told the Chronicle. "Prison rape is a form of torture, a human rights violation. No one should have to endure that as part of their sentence. It's also well-known that prisoners who are sexually abused suffer for years or decades from that trauma. We talk to people all the time who years later are still unable to function."

"They suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder," said Dr. Kupers. "There is an unofficial term we use, rape response syndrome. The effects of rape or sex abuse can last a life-time and be very serious and cause a lot of grief. Like in the Vietnam War, there is a lot of drinking and pot smoking, and we don't know how much of it is self-medicating. There are a lot of people affected who don't realize it," he said.

It is worse in prison, he said. "One of the things that makes it so severe for prisoners is the captivity. If you are raped, you try to do things to make yourself safe, you move away or you change houses, but when you're in prison, you can't do that. At worst, you are held in sexual captivity, where you are made into another prisoner's woman or punk, a repetitive hell of sexual abuse."

"We chose to highlight the role of the drug war in this because we felt the link hadn't been made," said Stop Prisoner Rape's Stannow. "Because of the war on drugs, we have seen a very dramatic swelling of the prison population, with half a million incarcerated on drug charges and hundreds of thousands more for drug-related offenses. The prisons are overcrowded, and that sets the stage for sexual violence. And a lot of nonviolent drug offenders fit the profile of inmates targeted for sexual violence -- young, nonviolent, inexperienced when it comes to prison life -- and are very much in danger."

It doesn't have to be that way. Changes can and should be made both in institutional policies within the prisons and in the US approach to drug policy in general, said Stannow.

"Sexual violence in prison is largely a management problem. In a well-run prison, you don't have rampant sexual violence," she pointed out. "One thing that needs to be done immediately is to make sure our prisons and jails are safe, so inmates don't get assaulted. Corrections officials can do this with proper classification and housing, and by taking immediate action when someone has been assaulted. They can also ensure that abused inmates receive counseling and access to medical care. There is a lot that can be done at the institutional level," she said.

Changing policies inside prisons is critical, Stannow argued. "We receive hundreds of letters a year from survivors, and one in four comes from Texas," she said. "On the other hand, some places, like the San Francisco County Jail, have very good policies in place to address prisoner rape and sexual violence. There are vast differences between prisons and prison systems across the country, and we are concerned about states where we receive a very large number of complaints," she said.

"But we also need to reduce the incarceration rate for people convicted of nonviolent drug offenses," Stannow continued. "We need to take treatment and diversion programs seriously and not automatically send everyone to prison."

The full report: Stories from Inside: Prisoner Rape and the War on Drugs," (.pdf) from Stop Prisoner Rape

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