A Florida prisoner whom we will identify only as P.R. was beaten, suffered a serious eye injury, and assaulted by an inmate armed with a knife, all due to his refusal to submit to anal sex. After six months of repeated threats and attacks by other inmates, at the end of his emotional endurance, he tried to commit suicide by slashing his wrists with a razor. In a letter to Human Rights Watch, he chronicled his unsuccessful efforts to induce prison authorities to protect him from abuse. Summing up these experiences, he wrote: "The opposite of compassion is not hatred, it's indifference."
P.R.'s bleak outlook is not unjustified. Judging by the popular media, rape is accepted as a commonplace of imprisonment, so much so that when the topic of prison arises, a joking reference to rape seems almost obligatory. Few members of the public would be surprised by the assertion that men are frequently raped in prison, given rape's established place in the mythology of prison life. Yet serious, sustained, and constructive attention to the subject remains rare. As Stephen Donaldson, the late president of the organization Stop Prisoner Rape, once said: "the rape of males is a taboo subject for public discussion . . . . If ever there was a crime hidden by a curtain of silence, it is male rape."
Without question, the hard facts about inmate-on-inmate sexual abuse are little known. No conclusive national data exist regarding the prevalence of prisoner-on-prisoner rape and other sexual abuse in the United States. Indeed, few commentators have even ventured to speculate on the national incidence of rape in prison, although some, extrapolating from small-scale studies, have come up with rough estimates as to its prevalence. With the staggering growth of the prison population over the past two decades, such ignorance is more unjustifiable than ever.
Prison authorities, unsurprisingly, generally claim that prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse is an exceptional occurrence rather than a systemic problem. Prison officials in New Mexico, for example, responding to our 1997 request for information regarding "the 'problem' of male inmate-on-inmate rape and sexual abuse" (the internal quotation marks are theirs), said that they had "no recorded incidents over the past few years." The Nebraska Department of Correctional Services informed Human Rights Watch that such incidents were "minimal." Only Texas, Ohio, Florida, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons said that they had more than fifty reported incidents in a given year, numbers which, because of the large size of their prison systems, still translate into extremely low rates of victimization.
Yet prison authorities' claims are belied by independent research on the topic. Indeed, the most recent academic studies of the issue have found shockingly high rates of sexual abuse, including forced oral and anal intercourse. In December 2000, the Prison Journal published a study based on a survey of inmates in seven men's prison facilities in four states. The results showed that 21 percent of the inmates had experienced at least one episode of pressured or forced sexual contact since being incarcerated, and at least 7 percent had been raped in their facility. A 1996 study of the Nebraska prison system produced similar findings, with 22 percent of male inmates reporting that they had been pressured or forced to have sexual contact against their will while incarcerated. Of these, over 50 percent had submitted to forced anal sex at least once. Extrapolating these findings to the national level gives a total of at least 140,000 inmates who have been raped.
An internal departmental survey of corrections officers in a southern state (provided to Human Rights Watch on the condition that the state not be identified) found that line officers -- those charged with the direct supervision of inmates -- estimated that roughly one-fifth of all prisoners were being coerced into participation in inmate-on-inmate sex. Interestingly, higher-ranking officials -- those at the supervisory level -- tended to give lower estimates of the frequency of abuse, while inmates themselves gave much higher estimates: the two groups cited victimization rates of roughly one-eighth and one-third, respectively. Although the author of the survey was careful to note that it was not conducted in accordance with scientific standards, and thus its findings may not be perfectly reliable, the basic conclusions are still striking. Even taking only the lowest of the three estimates of coerced sexual activity -- and even framing that one conservatively -- more than one in ten inmates in the prisons surveyed was subject to sexual abuse.
It is evident that certain prisoners are targeted for sexual assault the moment they enter a penal facility: their age, looks, sexual orientation, and other characteristics mark them as candidates for abuse. Human Rights Watch's research has revealed a broad range of factors that correlate with increased vulnerability to rape. These include youth, small size, and physical weakness; being white, gay, or a first offender; possessing "feminine" characteristics such as long hair or a high voice; being unassertive, unaggressive, shy, intellectual, not street-smart, or "passive"; or having been convicted of a sexual offense against a minor. Prisoners with any one of these characteristics typically face an increased risk of sexual abuse, while prisoners with several overlapping characteristics are much more likely than other inmates to be targeted for abuse. Yet it would be a mistake to think that only a minority of extremely vulnerable individuals face sexual abuse. In the wrong circumstances, it should be emphasized, almost any prisoner may become a victim.
The characteristics of prison rapists are somewhat less clear and predictable, but certain patterns can nonetheless be discerned. First, although some older inmates commit rape, the perpetrators also tend to be young, if not always as young as their victims--generally well under thirty-five years old. They are frequently larger or stronger than their victims, and are generally more assertive, physically aggressive, and more at home in the prison environment. They are "street smart"--often gang members. They have typically been convicted of more violent crimes than their victims.
The reality of sexual abuse in prison is deeply disturbing. Rapes can be almost unimaginably vicious and brutal. Gang assaults are not uncommon, and victims may be left beaten, bloody and, in the most extreme cases, dead. One of the most tragic and violent cases to come to the attention of Human Rights Watch was that of Randy Payne, a twenty-three year old incarcerated in a Texas maximum security prison. Within a week of entering the prison in August 1994, Payne was attacked by a group of some twenty inmates. The inmates demanded sex and money, but Payne refused. He was beaten for almost two hours; guards later said they had not noticed anything until they found his bloody body in the dayroom. He died of head injuries a few days later.
Another Texas inmate, who had deep scars on his head, neck, and chest, told Human Right Watch that the prisoner who inflicted the wounds had raped him eight separate times from July through November 1995. The first time M.R. was raped -- "which felt like having a tree limb shoved up into me" -- he told the prison chaplain about it, and the chaplain had him write out a statement for the facility's Internal Affairs department. According to M.R.'s description of the events, the Internal Affairs investigator brought both the victim and the perpetrator into a room together and asked them what had happened. Although M.R. was terrified to speak of the incident in front of the other inmate, he told his story, while the perpetrator claimed the sex was consensual. After both of them had spoken, the investigator told them that "lovers' quarrels" were not of interest to Internal Affairs, sending them both back to their cells. "The guy shoved me into his house and raped me again," M.R. later told Human Rights Watch. "It was a lot more violent this time."
M.R. spent several months trying to escape the rapist, facing repeated abuse. He filed grievances over the first couple of rapes in an effort to draw the attention of prison officials; they were returned saying the sexual assaults never occurred. On the last day of December, the rapist showed up on M.R.'s wing and threatened to kill M.R. with a combination lock. "I was in the dayroom. I remember eating a piece of cornbread and the next thing I knew I woke up in the hospital," M.R. recalled. A room full of prisoners saw the rapist nearly kill M.R. and then rape him in the middle of the dayroom. The rapist hit M.R. so hard with the lock that when M.R. regained consciousness he could read the word "Master"--the lockmaker--on his forehead. Four years later, a Human Rights Watch researcher could still see the round impression of the lock on the right side of his forehead. In all, M.R. suffered a broken neck, jaw, left collarbone, and finger; a dislocated left shoulder; two major concussions, and lacerations to his scalp that caused bleeding on the brain. Notwithstanding the extreme violence of the attack, and despite M.R.'s best efforts to press charges, the rapist was never criminally prosecuted.
Yet overtly violent rapes are only the most visible and dramatic form of sexual abuse behind bars. Many victims of prison rape have never had a knife to their throat. They may have never been explicitly threatened. But they have nonetheless engaged in sexual acts against their will, believing that they had no choice.
Although Human Rights Watch received many reports of forcible sexual attacks, we also heard numerous accounts of abuse based on more subtle forms of coercion and intimidation. Prisoners, including those who had been forcibly raped, all agree that the threat of violence, or even just the implicit threat of violence, is a more common factor in sexual abuse than is actual violence. As one explained:
From my point of view, rape takes place every day. A prisoner that is engaging in sexual acts, not by force, is still a victim of rape because I know that deep inside this prisoner do not want to do the things that he is doing but he thinks that it is the only way that he can survive.
Once subject to sexual abuse, whether violently or through coercion, a prisoner may easily become trapped into a sexually subordinate role. Prisoners refer to the initial rape as "turning out" the victim, and the suggestion of transformation is telling. Through the act of rape, the victim is redefined as an object of sexual abuse. He has been proven to be weak, vulnerable, "female," in the eyes of other inmates. Regaining his "manhood"--and the respect of other prisoners--can be extremely difficult.
Stigmatized as a "punk" or "turn out," the victim of rape will almost inevitably be the target of continuing sexual exploitation, both from the initial perpetrator and, unless the perpetrator "protects" him, from other inmates as well. "Once someone is violated sexually and there is no consequences on the perpetrators, that person who was violated then becomes a mark or marked," an Indiana prisoner told Human Rights Watch. "That means he's fair game." His victimization is likely to be public knowledge, and his reputation will follow him to other housing areas, if he is moved, and even to other prisons. As another inmate explained: "Word travels so Fast in prison. The Convict grape vine is Large. You cant run or hide."
Prisoners unable to escape a situation of sexual abuse may find themselves becoming another inmate's "property." The word is commonly used in prison to refer to sexually subordinate inmates, and it is no exaggeration. Victims of prison rape, in the most extreme cases, are literally the slaves of the perpetrators. Forced to satisfy another man's sexual appetites whenever he demands, they may also be responsible for washing his clothes, massaging his back, cooking his food, cleaning his cell, and myriad other chores. They are frequently "rented out" for sex, sold, or even auctioned off to other inmates, replicating the financial aspects of traditional slavery. Their most basic choices, like how to dress and whom to talk to, may be controlled by the person who "owns" them. Their name may be replaced by a female one. Like all forms of slavery, these situations are among the most degrading and dehumanizing experiences a person can undergo.
J.D., a white inmate in Texas who admits that he "cannot fight real good," told Human Rights Watch that he was violently raped by his cellmate, a heavy, muscular man, in 1993. "From that day on," he said, "I was classified as a homosexual and was sold from one inmate to the next." Although he informed prison staff that he had been raped and was transferred to another part of the prison, the white inmates in his new housing area immediately "sold" him to a black inmate known as Blue Top. Blue Top used J.D. sexually, while also "renting" his sexual services to other black inmates. Besides being forced to perform "all types of sexual acts," J.D. had to defer to Blue Top in every other way. Under Blue Top's dominion, no task was too menial or too degrading for J.D. to perform. After two and a half months of this abuse, J.D. was finally transferred to a safer environment.
Six Texas inmates gave Human Rights Watch firsthand accounts of being forced into this type of sexual slavery, having even been "sold" or "rented" out to other inmates. Numerous other Texas prisoners confirmed that the practice of sexual slavery, including the buying and selling of inmates, is commonplace in the system's more dangerous prison units. Although Texas, judging from the information received by Human Rights Watch, has the worst record in this respect, we also collected personal testimonies from inmates in Illinois, Michigan, California, and Arkansas who have survived situations of sexual slavery.
Rape's effects on the victim's psyche are serious and enduring. Victims of rape often suffer extreme psychological stress, a condition identified as rape trauma syndrome. Many inmate victims with whom Human Rights Watch has been in contact have reported nightmares, deep depression, shame, loss of self-esteem, self-hatred, and considering or attempting suicide. Serious questions arise as to how the trauma of sexual abuse resolves itself when such inmates are released into society. Indeed, some experts believe that the experience of rape threatens to perpetuate a cycle of violence, with the abused inmate in some instances turning violent himself.
Another devastating consequence of prisoner-on-prisoner rape is the transmission of HIV, the virus which causes AIDS. Several prisoners with whom Human Rights Watch is in contact believe that they have contracted HIV through forced sexual intercourse in prison. K.S., a prisoner in Arkansas, was repeatedly raped between January and December 1991 by more than twenty different inmates, one of whom, he believes, transmitted the HIV virus to him. K.S. had tested negative for HIV upon entry to the prison system, but in September 1991 he tested positive.
It must be emphasized that rape and other sexual abuses occur in prison because correctional officials, to a surprising extent, do little to stop them from occurring. While some inmates with whom Human Rights Watch is in contact have described relatively secure institutions--where inmates are closely monitored, where steps are taken to prevent inmate-on-inmate abuses, and where such abuses are punished if they occur--many others report a decidedly laissez faire approach to the problem. In too many institutions, prevention measures are meager and effective punishment of abuses is rare.
Prisoner classification policies include among their goals the separation of dangerous prisoners from those whom they are likely to victimize. In the overcrowded prisons of today, however, the practical demands of simply finding available space for inmates have to a large extent overwhelmed classification ideals. Inmates frequently find themselves placed among others whose background, criminal history, and other characteristics make them an obvious threat. Indeed, in the worst cases, prisoners are actually placed in the same cell with inmates who are likely to victimize them--sometimes even with inmates who have a demonstrated proclivity for sexual abusing others.
Another casualty of the enormous growth of the country's prison population is adequate staffing and supervision of inmates. The consequences with regard to rape are obvious. Rape occurs most easily when there is no prison staff around to see or hear it. Particularly at night, prisoners have told Human Rights Watch, they are often left alone and unsupervised in their housing areas. Several inmates have reported to Human Rights Watch that they yelled for help when they were attacked, to no avail. Although correctional staff are supposed to make rounds at regular intervals, they do not always abide by their schedules. Moreover, they often walk by prisoners' cells without making an effort to see what is really happening within them. The existence of difficult to monitor areas, especially in older prisons, compounds the problem. As one Florida inmate summed up: "Rapes occur because the lack of observation make it possible. Prisons have too few guards and too many blind spots."
An absolutely central problem with regard to sexual abuse in prison, emphasized by inmate after inmate, is the inadequate--and, in many instances, callous and irresponsible--response of correctional staff to complaints of rape. When an inmate informs an officer that he has been threatened with rape or, even worse, actually assaulted, it is crucial that his complaint be met with a rapid and effective response. Most obviously, he should be brought to a place where his safety can be protected and where he can set out his complaint in a confidential manner. If the rape has already occurred, he should be taken for whatever medical care may be needed and--a step that is crucial for any potential criminal prosecution--where physical evidence of rape can be collected. Yet from the reports that Human Rights Watch has received, such responses are rare.
The criminal justice system also affords scant relief to sexually abused prisoners. Few public prosecutors are concerned with prosecuting crimes committed against inmates, preferring to leave internal prison problems to the discretion of the prison authorities; similarly, prison officials themselves rarely push for the prosecution of prisoner-on-prisoner abuses. As a result, perpetrators of prison rape almost never face criminal charges.
Internal disciplinary mechanisms, the putative substitute for criminal prosecution, tend to function poorly in those cases in which the victim reports the crime. In nearly every instance Human Rights Watch has encountered, the authorities have imposed light disciplinary sanctions against the perpetrator--perhaps thirty days in disciplinary segregation--if that. Often rapists are simply transferred to another facility, or are not moved at all. Their victims, in contrast, may end up spending the rest of their prison terms in protective custody units whose conditions are often similar to those in disciplinary segregation: twenty-three hours per day in a cell, restricted privileges, and no educational or vocational opportunities.
Disappointingly, the federal courts have not played a significant role in curtailing prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse. Despite the paucity of lawyers willing to litigate such cases, some inmates do nonetheless file suit against the prison authorities in the aftermath of rape. They assert that the authorities' failure to take steps to protect them from abuse violates the prohibition on "cruel and usual punishments" contained in the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Such cases are often dismissed in the early stages of litigation. Moreover, the rare case that does survive to reach a jury typically finds the inmate plaintiff before an audience that is wholly unreceptive to his story. While there have been a few generous damages awards in prison rape case, they are the very rare exceptions to the rule.
Unfortunately the legal rules that the courts have developed relating to prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse create perverse incentives for authorities to ignore the problem. Under the "deliberate indifference" standard that is applicable to legal challenges to prison officials' failure to protect prisoners from inter-prisoner abuses such as rape, the prisoner must prove to the court that the defendants had actual knowledge of a substantial risk to him, and that they disregarded that risk. As the courts have emphasized, it is not enough for the prisoner to prove that "the risk was obvious and a reasonable prison official would have noticed it." Instead, if a prison official lacked knowledge of the risk--no matter how obvious it was to anyone else--he cannot be held liable. In other words, rather than trying to ascertain the true dimensions of the problem of prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse, prison officials have good reason to want to remain unaware of it.
The existing situation, marked by a wholesale disregard for prisoners' right to be free of violent rape and other forms of unwanted sexual contact, must be reformed. Human Rights Watch calls on the United States authorities to demonstrate their commitment to prevent, investigate, and punish prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse in men's prisons and jails, as required under both international and national law. We make the following recommendations to the federal and state governments, urging them to step up their efforts to address this gross violation of human dignity.
Recommendations to Federal Authorities
I. To the U.S. Congress
II. To the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice
III. To the National Institute of Corrections
Recommendations to State Authorities and the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP)
I. To State Departments of Corrections (DOCs) and the BOP
II. To State and Local Prosecutors