United States


A gang of inmates violently attacks a lone prisoner in the shower, sticking a knife to his throat and ripping his clothes off. "Don't make a sound or you're dead," they warn him. Then they rape him, one after another.

This is what people outside of prison tend to picture when they think of prisoner-on-prisoner rape. The basic scenario is not inaccurate, Human Rights Watch has found; it occurs in prisons around the country. Rape in prison 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.

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.

These coercive forms of sexual abuse are much more common than violent gang rapes and, for prison authorities, much easier to ignore. 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.(228)

In attempting to delineate some of the more common scenarios of prison sexual abuse, the following chapter describes both overtly violent forms of abuse and forms in which the violence is submerged or hidden. Key to many of the latter situations are what prisoners term "manipulation techniques" or "mind games": tricks used by predatory inmates to trap those they consider vulnerable.

In a letter to Human Rights Watch, a Florida prisoner set out a rough typology of the various forms of prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse. He explained:

    Let me say I believe there are different levels or kinds of rape in prison. First, there is what I will refer to as "Bodily Force Rape" for lack of a better term. This is the kind of assault where one or more individuals attack another individual and by beating and subduing him force sex either anal or oral on him.

    Second there is what I'll call Rape By Threat. An example of this would be, when an individual tells a weaker individual that in order to avoid being assulted by the individual who's speaking he must submit to his demand for sex.

    Third and by far the most common is what I'll call using a persons fears of his situation to convince him to submit to sex . . . . Among inmates there is a debate wheather this is in fact rape at all. In my opinion it is in fact rape. Let me give you an example of what happens and you decide.

    Example: A new inmate arrives. He has no funds for the things he needs such as soap, junk food, and drugs (there are a great deal of drugs in prisons). Someone befriends him and tells him if he needs anything come to him. The new arrival is some times aware, but most times not, that what he is receiving has a 100% interest rate that is compounded weekly. When the N.A. is in deep enough the "friend" will tell him he can cover some of his debt by submitting to sex. This has been the "friend's" objective from the begining. To manuver the N.A. into a corner where he's vulnerable. Is this rape? I think it is.(229)

To answer this prisoner's question--can apparently consensual sex be deemed rape--and, if so, under what circumstances is it rape--it is necessary to explore the peculiar dynamics of incarceration.

Consent and Coercion in Prison

[A]ll choices and relationships are so constrained and limited in the unfree world of the prison that what is normally meant by such terms as "free" or "voluntary" does not apply.

-- James Gilligan, M.D., former director of mental health of the Massachusetts prison system(230)

The existence of freely given consent or, conversely, the absence of coercion, is a critical factor in distinguishing sexual abuse from mere sex.(231) But in the context of imprisonment, much more so than in the outside world, the concepts of consent and coercion are extremely slippery. Prisons and jails are inherently coercive environments. Inmates enjoy little autonomy and little possibility of free choice, making it difficult to ascertain whether an inmate's consent to anything is freely given.(232) Distinguishing coerced sex from consensual sex can be especially difficult.

Human Rights Watch has previously addressed the issue of inmates' consent to sex in the specific case of women inmates' sexual relations with correctional officers. In light of officers' enormous authority over inmates--a power imbalance that eviscerates traditional notions of consent--we concluded that custodial sexual contact should be deemed a criminal act even in the absence of overt or implied coercion.(233)

Prisoner-on-prisoner sexual contact might first appear to pose very different questions than custodial sexual contact as, formally at least, prisoners are not supposed to be able to exercise power over each other. The reality, however, is that in most prisons, even those where correctional authorities make a reasonable effort to maintain control of their charges, an inmate hierarchy exists by which certain prisoners enjoy a great deal of power over their fellows and other prisoners are exposed to exploitation and abuse. This power imbalance is of course much more marked in prisons where the authorities have ceded effective control to the inmate population, an all too common occurrence. Indeed, where "the inmates run the prison"--a phrase Human Rights Watch heard on several occasions--some of the most abusive relationships take place with little or no need for threats or other overtly coercive acts. For some prisoners, the atmosphere of fear and intimidation is so overwhelming that they acquiesce in their sexual exploitation without putting up any obvious resistance. J.D., incarcerated in Colorado, explained how this happened to him:

    I came to prison in April, 1991. I'd never been to prison before. I basically feared for my life . . . . Eventually, I ended up with a roommate who took advantage of my situation. He made me feel "protected" somewhat. But, at the same time, he let me know he could quite capably beat me up, if he wanted. One night, after we were all locked down for the night, he told me he could help me overcome my sexual inhibitions, if I would let him. He told me he was bisexual. I knew he was quite sexually active, so to speak, as he had female pornography in the room as well as masturbating frequently to it. But, I was surprised he would come on to me. However, I felt very much in danger if I did not give in to him. I was very scared. I ended up letting him penetrate me anally. After this, I would feign sleep at night when he'd come in. But, there were several more times he forced me to perform sexually.(234)

Viewed from outside, the sexual relationship between J.D. and his cellmate would likely have appeared consensual. Indeed, in instances where the victim makes little apparent effort to escape the abuse, both prisoners and prison authorities often fall into the trap of viewing nonconsensual sexual activity as consensual, ignoring the larger context in which the activity takes place.(235) Consent, however, assumes the existence of choice. As will be described in more detail below, where prisoners feel unprotected and know in advance that their escape routes are closed, a narrow focus on consent is misguided. In other words, the relevant inquiry in evaluating sexual activity in prison is not simply "did the inmate consent to sex?" but also "did the inmate have the power to refuse unwanted sex?"

It is important to note, moreover, that it is these apparently "consensual" sexual acts that are least likely ever to come to the attention of correctional authorities. J.D., like most inmates in his position, never told the authorities about his situation.

Violent or Forcible Assaults

Inmate victims of rape have told Human Rights Watch of sexual assaults that ended in concussions, broken bones, deep wounds, and other serious injuries. A small number of inmates, such as Randy Payne, have been killed during sexually-motivated attacks.

Payne, a twenty-three year old white inmate who had been sentenced to fifteen years for having sex with a minor, was attacked by a group of about twenty other inmates within a week of arriving at a maximum-security Texas prison in August 1994. The inmates had demanded sex and money, but Payne had 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.(236)

Another Texas inmate, showing 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. 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 said. "It was a lot more violent this time."(237)

M.R. spent several months trying to escape the rapist. He filed grievances over the first couple of rapes that were returned saying the sexual assaults never occurred. Once a guard stumbled upon a rape in progress; he took M.R. out of the rapist's cell, but the incident was never investigated. M.R. was transferred to another wing but the rapist managed to sneak over there, banging on the bars to get M.R.'s attention. "He told me he loved me. He said if he couldn't have me nobody could." M.R., who is heterosexual, tried to tell the other prisoner that he had no interest in sex with any man, but the other prisoner dismissed this.

On December 31, the rapist again showed up on M.R.'s wing, threatening to kill M.R. with a combination lock, which he showed M.R. "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.(238) 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. A room full of prisoners witnessed the rapist nearly kill M.R. and, after he was done beating him, 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 temple. Four years later, a Human Rights Watch researcher could still see the round impression of the lock on the right side of his forehead. The rapist was never criminally prosecuted, despite M.R.'s efforts to press charges. From what M.R. heard from other inmates, the rapist only received fifteen days' segregation as punishment for the near murder.

Extreme violence as an element of rape is even more common with gang assaults--assaults involving more than one perpetrator. A number of inmates told Human Rights Watch of being badly beaten during such assaults, especially in instances where the victim initially resisted the attack. A Georgia prisoner related, for example: "Two violent inmates with a record of violence threatened to sexually assault me and take my store goods. I tried to fight back, which resulted in my jaw being broke in 3 places."(239)

Other prisoners described assaults involving, in many instances, more than two perpetrators, and sometimes even up to six or eight of them. The perpetrators typically take turns holding the victim down on the bed or on the floor, or holding a weapon to him, while the others sexually assault him. Sometimes violence is not used, as it is easy enough for several prisoners to overpower a single victim simply by holding him in place. Violent language and degrading insults are common, as well as threats to kill the victim if he tells the authorities.

Forcible sexual assaults can occur in almost any area where inmates are found, but the most common place for such assaults to take place seems to be inmates' sleeping areas: either group dormitories or cells. Showers, bathrooms, and other areas offering a degree of privacy are also used. "It happens anywhere there's a little nook or cranny," explained a prisoner who was violently raped by three inmates in a washroom.(240)

Coerced Sexual Abuse

At night the guards locked themselves in a cage and slept while inmates sexually and physically assaulted others. . . . I at times was asked for sexual favors in order to maintain my security. I was never forced into sex physically, but mentally I wasn't capable of saying no, as I feared for my life.(241)

[T]he acceptance of a cigarette may have a hidden price attached.(242)

D.A., a young Texas inmate, was dozing off in his bed not long after being transferred to a new prison. "The next thing I know, there's someone in my cell," D.A. told a Human Rights Watch representative two years later. "He gave me an ultimatum: he said you're going to let me fuck you, or my homeboys will stab you."(243) D.A., who believed the aggressor was a member of the Crips gang, submitted to anal sex. His story is typical of many known to Human Rights Watch--rapes committed not through violence but through the threat of violence.

In many instances, moreover, the threat of violence is never even articulated by the perpetrator of sexual abuse, although it is likely to be implicit in his interaction with the victim. Instead of overt threats, manipulation is used. The victim's acute awareness of his own vulnerability is exploited by the perpetrator, who coerces the victim into unwanted yet unforced sexual contact.

A number of prisoners described typical coercion scenarios in detail to Human Rights Watch. The following are a couple of representative descriptions:

  • [One technique to force a prisoner into sex is that] one of the bad guys will set up a power play. This is accomplished by him having two or three of his friends stop down on the prisoner of his choice in a strong manner as if to fight or beat up this prisoner. This usually puts the choosen prisoner in great fear of those type guys. The prisoner that set up this will be close by when this goes down. His roll is to step in just before the act gets physical. He defends the choosen prisoner by taking on the would be offenders. This works to gain the respect and trust of the choosen prisoner. After this encounter the choosen prisoner is encouraged to hang out with his new friend. This is repeated once or twice more to convence the choosen one of the sincere loyalties of the prisoner that set all this up . . . . They become very close, the choosen one feels compelled to show his thanks by giving at first monetary favors to his protector and it progress to the point where this guy that set up the attacks on him will not accept just the money. He starts to insist on the choosen one to give him sexual favors . . . . The fear of him, the choosen one, is that if he do not have this one Protector the rest of the guys will be back after him. After all it is better to have one person that you give sexual favors than it would be to have to be forced to do the act by two or more prisoners at the same time.(244)
  • What is more prevalent at TCIP . . . is best called "coercion." I suppose you have an idea what these engagements entail. The victim is usually tricked into owing a favor. Here this is usually drugs, with the perpetrator seeming to be, to the victim, a really swell fellow and all. Soon, however, the victim is asked to repay all those joints or licks of dope--right away. Of course he has no drugs or money, and the only alternative is sexual favors. Once a prisoner is "turned-out," it's pretty much a done deal. I guess a good many victims just want to do their time and not risk any trouble, so they submit. . . . The coercion-type abuses continue because of their covert nature. From the way such attacks manifest, it can seem to others, administrators and prisoners, that the victims are just homosexual to begin with. Why else would they allow such a thing to happen, people might ask.(245)

These descriptions illustrate the two basic scenarios--both of which involve debt--repeated again and again by inmates. The first is that an inmate acts as a protector to a vulnerable prisoner, scaring off (or pretending to scare off) other predators. Sometimes the protector begins by doing this for free, asking nothing in return, but eventually he will ask to be rewarded sexually. If the victim refuses, prisoners have explained, then the protector himself will threaten the victim overtly, but such overt threats are frequently unnecessary. When the victim is convinced that rape is inevitable, he will often accede under little direct pressure, hoping simply to lessen the physical violence of the act.

The second basic scenario is for the perpetrator to provide food, drugs, or other desirable items to a potential victim, allowing the victim to build up a debt. At some point, the perpetrator insists that the debt be repaid via sexual favors. Again, if the victim hesitates, the perpetrator may make it terrifyingly clear to him that refusal is not an option, but this last step is often unnecessary.

Constant sexual harassment--sexualized comments, whistling, groping--is often another part of the process by which the victim is pressured into submitting to unwanted sex. G.H., who entered prison when he was seventeen and was almost immediately coerced into sexual contact, said that while he was being processed through the initial orientation phase, still in shock over being incarcerated, "inmates would whistle at me and tell me Im a convicts dream 'girl' come true."(246) L.B., a small, slim first offender convicted of burglary, remembered entering a new prison in 1996: "as soon as I walked on the wing, the catcalls started."(247) Describing the effect of such harassment on the victim, another prisoner said, "the dominant party [will] first let the intended victim know that he wants to have sex with him, then begin to wear the victim down by constantly leering at him in ways that let the victim know what's on his mind. Psychologically the victim eventually begins to believe he is a homosexual and no longer resists."(248)

Seasoned inmates are usually familiar with tactics such as these, and are more skilled at managing them. As G.H. exemplifies, it is new, incoming inmates who are most vulnerable. As one prisoner put it: "Most of prison is a mind game. People get taken advantage of when they're green and don't know what to expect."(249)

Continuing Sexual Abuse

You will be lebled as a bisexual, or homosexual, pretty boy, gay, little girl, queen. Once there has been penetration or forced oral sex, the jacket is on his back, as being a punk, sissy, queer, etc.(250)

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 nearly impossible.

In a cruel twist, the fact of victimization may be viewed as justifying itself, given the common inmate belief that a real man would never submit to rape. According to one extreme variant of this view, the rapist merely recognizes and acts upon the victim's "latent homosexual tendencies." As one Texas inmate put it, many inmates are convinced that:

    [D]udes that are turned out were like that in the first place & just wanted an excuse to come out of the closet . . . . [P]unks were born like that and it doesn't matter because if it did they'd fight and/or resist.(251)

Even prisoners who do not share this view often believe that, once the rape has taken place, the victim becomes a homosexual. Inmates speak of other raped prisoners as being "converted to women" or "made into homosexuals," as if one's sexuality might be irretrievably altered by the fact of rape.(252) That some victims of rape appear to accept the role imposed on them--by failing to report the abuse or even by adopting stereotypically feminine attributes--strengthens prisoners' adherence to this view.

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."(253) 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."(254)

With other prisoners being moved around the prison system, and inmates communicating via other means as well, transfer to a new prison unit is no guarantee of escaping one's reputation. It may, however, provide a respite from abuse--and, in some cases, a new start--especially if the new unit is less volatile and violent than the previous one. W.M. is a Texas prisoner who was raped soon after entering prison and became a "turn out," sexually exploited by a long series of inmates. Finally, after years of abuse, he "went renegade," as he put it. Transferred to a new prison unit, he saw it as an opportunity to make a break with the past. Heavier, stronger, and far more street smart than he was when he entered prison, he physically attacked any inmate who approached him sexually.

Explaining how he succeeded in escaping further abuse, W.M. said:

You asked if I thought someone who is raped is necessarily going to be targeted for more abuse. The answer is an emphatic yes. Anyone who's had the pipe laid to them is going to be tried constantly throughout his stay in prison. I've got scars where I've been stabbed & cut up, I'll show you when I see you. There is a price you pay when you break away and any prison boy/gal knows it. The trick [to successfully avoiding continuing sexual abuse] is to stay low-key after you succeed & deny, deny, deny, if it's ever brought up and if there is any question or any doubt in anyone's mind, you do your best to kill the person that brought it up. Blood clears a lot of questions from peoples' heads.

But the years before W.M. made his break are more representative of the options typically open to victims of rape. After being raped by his cellmate, he was forced to "be with someone": a protector who kept other inmates away. When that person was transferred to different unit, W.M. was passed on to another man. "I usually spent about three or four months with each one. I was with one guy for ten months."(255) Inmates told Human Rights Watch that such an outcome is considered normal: "The result of 'turning out' a kid is that the kid usually finds a 'dad'--an older, strong inmate to take care of him and to protect him from any future attacks."(256) Notably, a similar phenomenon of "protective pairing" has been documented in the case of women abducted and sexually abused during armed conflict.(257)

Numerous victims told Human Rights Watch similar stories of becoming the "kid" or the "wife" of their rapist. Some, in even worse predicaments, were forced to sexually service an entire gang for a period of time.

Just as with the initial acts of coerced sex described above, this type of continuing sexual abuse is likely to be viewed as consensual by others, including prison staff. When sexual contact is no longer violent, it may be thought that the inmate is consenting to it. Yet even if a prisoner initially fights back against his attackers, he will at some point resign himself to his situation and stop fighting it. "Rarely does somebody resist after the 5th or 6th time," explained W.M. "That's why they say its by choice not force most of the time. That's a lie though, because mental force is just as effective if not more."(258)

The only escape from abuse, except for the small minority of inmates who succeed in rehabilitating their reputation, is release from prison or transfer to a protective custody or safekeeping unit--areas designed to be havens for vulnerable inmates. Yet as will be discussed in chapter VII, it can be very difficult to convince prison authorities to authorize such a transfer. Moreover, protective custody units tend to be extremely restrictive, even punitive, in their conditions.

Even more worrisome, the very fact of trying to escape to protective custody by reporting sexual abuse puts an inmate at greater risk. As is explained at greater length below, the general stigma against "snitching"--reporting other inmates' wrongdoing--discourages victims from informing prison officials of their abuse. In cases of prisoner-on-prisoner rape, the perpetrators often reinforce the tacit prohibition on snitching by specifically threatening violent retaliation if the victim says a word to officials about what happened to him.


A convicted felon is one whom the law in its humanity punishes by confinement in the penitentiary instead of death . . . . For the time being, during his term of service in the penitentiary, he is a slave of penal servitude to the State.

-- Virginia Supreme Court in Ruffin v. Commonwealth, 62 Va. 790, 796 (1871).

[A]n offender should not and must not, be sentenced to a term of enslavement by gangs, rape and abuse by predatory inmates.

-- Federal district court opinion in Ruiz v. Texas (1999).

[An inmate] claimed me as his property and I didnt dispute it. I became obedient, telling myself at least I was surviving . . . . He publicly humiliated and degraded me, making sure all the inmates and gaurds knew that I was a queen and his property. Within a week he was pimping me out to other inmates at $3.00 a man. This state of existence continued for two months until he sold me for $25.00 to another black male who purchased me to be his wife.

-- E.S., Michigan inmate, October 4, 1996.

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, cooking his food, massaging his back, 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. They may even be renamed as women.(259) 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."(260) 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 safekeeping.

Another Texas inmate explained the financial dimension that is evident in J.D.'s treatment. According to him, "when they do turn out a guy they actually own them, every penny they get it goes to there man. You can buy a kid for 20 or 30 dollars on most wings!! They sell them like cattle."(261) A third Texas inmate made a similar analogy: "It would amaze you (as it did me) to see human beings bought & sold like shoes."(262)

The testimony of another Texas inmate, describing the rules imposed on him by the prisoner who became his "man," suggests the extent to which these victimized inmates are forced to obey their abusers, sexually and otherwise:

    "You will clean the house," he said, have my clothes clean and when Im ready to get my "freak" no arguments or there will be a punishment! I will, he said, let my homeboys have you or Ill just sale you off. Do we have an understanding? With fear, misery, and confusion inside me . . . I said yes.(263)

Six Texas inmates, separately and independently, 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.

Prisoners elsewhere frequently spoke of the phenomenon, suggesting that it is not limited to the states mentioned above. An Indiana prisoner, for example, told Human Rights Watch:

    most time when a young boy is turned out by a gang, the sole purpose of that is first to fuck the boy especially young boys, once they finish with the boy they are sold to another prisoner for profit, it's big business selling boys in prisons and gang members control this business.(264)

When slavery and involuntary servitude were officially abolished in the United States by the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. constitution, an exception was made for "a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted."(265) At that time, prisoners were considered the "slaves of the state," outside the purview of judicially-enforced constitutional protections. More than a hundred years later, prisoners' legal status has improved. Yet, a different, though equally horrifying, form of slavery continues in U.S. prisons, and the fundamental rights of the victims of these abuses continue to be ignored.

Sex, Violence and Power

Rape in prison is rarely a sexual act, but one of violence, politics, and an acting out of power roles.

-- Journalist and prisoner Wilbert Rideau, in "The Sexual Jungle"(266)

Of course rape is a crime of hatred. I'm ugly as a mud fence, why would W.R. want to have sex with me?

-- A Texas inmate, October 8, 1998.

Locked in an all male society, lacking other sexual outlets, prisoners might be assumed to commit rape as a means of sexual release. Yet the cruelty and degradation so intimately connected to rape in prison undermines this facile explanation, suggesting that inmates' real motivations for committing rape are more complicated. Theorists of rape, whose research has mostly focused on women victims, have posited that rape is as much a crime of violence as it is one of sex.(267) Prisoners' views and experiences, as conveyed to Human Rights Watch, tend to confirm this notion.

The question of whether prisoner-on-prisoner rape is primarily a crime of violence or of sex is not an academic one, since knowledge of rape's causes is obviously of benefit in crafting effective prevention strategies. Were the causes of rape found to be rooted in sexual deprivation per se, then conjugal visits, for example, might be recommended as the primary means of attacking the problem.(268)

But prison experts, academic commentators, and prisoners themselves generally concur that sexual deprivation is not the main source of the phenomenon.(269) Instead, in the prison context, where power and hierarchy are key, rape is an expression of power. It unequivocally establishes the aggressor's dominance, affirming his masculinity, strength, and control at the expense of the victim's.

People in prison are deprived of sex, but perhaps even more fundamentally they are deprived of almost all choice in or power over their lives. The most basic decisions affecting them--what to eat, when to get up, where and with whom to live--are outside of their control. As Louisiana prisoner and writer Wilbert Rideau has pointed out, "The psychological pain involved in such an existence creates an urgent and terrible need for reinforcement of [the prisoner's] sense of manhood and personal worth."(270) One means of doing so is by establishing absolute power over another prisoner via rape.

Numerous prisoners confirmed this portrayal of rape as a means of expressing power in a situation of powerlessness. Explained a Virginia inmate: "In my view the perpetrator of rape is an angry man. He lacks power and decides to steal it from others through assault." Interestingly, this same inmate drew a correlation between the imposition of a more oppressive prison regime, in which officials treat prisoners unfairly, and the likelihood of a sexual assault. He explained that he had noticed that "the more oppressive the system the higher the incidents of assaultive behavior in general . . . . Fair and objective treatment seems to create a less-assaultive environment."(271) Indeed, if prisoners' quest for dominance over others is to some extent a consequence of their lack of power in every other area of life, then it stands to reason that a harsher and more arbitrary prison regime would exacerbate the tendency.

A Nebraska inmate put the matter succinctly: "Power, control, revenge, seem to top the 'reasons' for rape."(272) Others elaborated at length on the factors that contribute to the problem:

    Most cons are emotionally alienated from themselves. The peer pressure not to be seen as "weak" pertaining to any gentler emotion, is astronomically intense . . . . In prison, to gain a simple hug which is emotionally soothing without being threatening, the dominator can only accept from the dominated. [Also] a prisoner experiences profound powerlessness of self over one's life and future. One of the most basic ways to resume an illusion of empowerment of self is to establish power over another at ground zero: life and sexual gratification.(273)

In prison, as elsewhere, money is a form of power. The financial incentives for rape are another aggravating factor, particularly in prison systems in which prisoners have no means of making money except by extorting it from other prisoners or by pimping them out.

The obvious disdain prisoners share regarding "punks" and "turnouts"--inmates subject to sexual abuse--further strengthens the view of rape as a crime of violence and power, not of sexual passion. Indeed, "punk" is a frequently used insult in prison, denoting everything that prisoners do not want to be. A Utah inmate told Human Rights Watch: "The word 'punk' in this facility is used loosely, and is a term used to down-size someone, as well as to identify an actual 'punk' meaning a kid or guy who is used and exploited sexually because he is too timid or weak to make a stand."(274) As explained above, a raped inmate is considered degraded and humiliated; rape, in other words, is a means of degradation.

Still, to think that there is a strict dichotomy between rape as a sexual act and rape as a violent assertion of power may be somewhat misguided. Rapists are, in the most obvious ways, sexually stimulated by what they are doing. "[N]o matter how one characterizes it, i.e., 'control'; 'violence'; 'rage' etc.," suggested a Colorado inmate, "it is sexuality."(275) The fact that the victim of rape is injured and degraded may itself be a source of sexual arousal to the rapist. Daniel Lockwood, an expert on prison rape, has posited that sexual aggression in prison can be traced to men's sexist attitudes toward women, which, in prison, translate into a bias against men placed in female roles.(276) The fact that stereotypically feminine characteristics are so despised in male prisoners may reflect a more general contempt of women, not just men who are considered to be like women. Although misogyny would appear to be an unlikely cause of male-on-male rape, it may be an ingredient in the volatile mix that results in sexual abuse in prison.

228. Letter to Human Rights Watch from V.H., Arkansas, November 17, 1996.

229. Letter to Human Rights Watch from B.H., Florida, October 22, 1996.

230. Gilligan, Violence, p. 165.

231. See the international definitions of rape discussed in chapter III, above. Although there is a critical difference between consensual and nonconsensual sex in terms of whether an inmate's rights have been violated, it is worth noting that all forms of sex, even consensual sex, are uniformly forbidden under prison disciplinary codes.

232. International protections of prisoner's rights demonstrate an implicit recognition of this problem by barring medical or scientific experimentation even on prisoners who purport to consent to it. See article 11(2) of Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions, prohibiting experimention on prisoners of war. Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and Relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), 1125 U.N.T.S. 3, entered into force December 7, 1978. The U.N. Human Rights Committee, the body charged with monitoring implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), has a similar reading of the ICCPR's protections. It has explained:

Article 7 [of the ICCPR] expressly prohibits medical or scientific experimentation without the free consent of the person concerned . . . . The Committee also observes that special protection in regard to such experiments is necessary in the case of persons not capable of giving valid consent, and in particular those under any form of detention or imprisonment.

Human Rights Committee, General Comment 20, Article 7 (Forty-fourth session, 1992), U.N. Doc. HRI\GEN\1\Rev.1 at 30 (1994).

233. Human Rights Watch, All Too Familiar, p. 43.

234. Letter to Human Rights Watch from J.D., Colorado, October 12, 1997.

235. A landmark 1982 study of prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse in Philadephia specifically mentions this problem, along with describing the difficulty, in the prison context, of distinguishing rape from consensual sex:

[I]t was hard to separate consensual homosexuality from rape, since many continuing and isolated homosexual liaisons originated from a gang rape, or from the ever-present threat of gang rape. Thus, a threat of rape, expressed or implied, would prompt an already fearful young man to submit. Prison officials are too quick to label such activities "consensual."

Davis, "Sexual Assaults in the Philadelphia Prison System," p. 13.

236. Allan Turner, "Mother probes son's death in prison," Houston Chronicle, June 4, 1995.

237. Human Rights Watch interview, Texas, March 1999.

238. Ibid.

239. Letter to Human Rights Watch, October 13, 1996.

240. Human Rights Watch interview, Texas, October 1998.

241. Letter to Human Rights Watch from R.L., Arizona, August 26, 1999.

242. Letter to Human Rights Watch from W.M., Texas, December 26, 1997.

243. Human Rights Watch interview, October 1998.

244. Letter to Human Rights Watch from M.H., Florida, October 29, 1996.

245. Letter to Human Rights Watch from J.S., Tennessee, September 5, 1996.

246. Letter to Human Rights Watch from G.H., Texas, December 1, 1998.

247. Human Rights Watch interview, Texas, October 1998.

248. Letter to Human Rights Watch from P.S., Texas, October 17, 1996.

249. Human Rights Watch interview, Texas, March 1999.

250. Letter to Human Rights Watch from C.K., Texas, October 28, 1996.

251. Letter to Human Rights Watch from W.M., Texas, October 31, 1996. The prisoner attributed this belief to African American inmates in particular, but Human Rights Watch has found it to be fairly widespread among prisoners generally.

252. In doing so they echo the views of prison experts from earlier times. One such commentator, writing in 1934, warned:

Every year large numbers of boys, adolescent youths, and young men are made homosexuals, either temporarily or permanently, in the prisons of America . . . . These newly born perverts, in turn, corrupt others.

Joseph Fishman, Sex in Prison (New York: National Library Press, 1934), p. 83. Even certain contemporary writers have held to this idea, asserting: "Repeated homosexual rape causes the inmate victims to develop a new sexual identity. They now harbor a raped female in their male bodies." Weiss and Friar, Terror in the Prisons, p. 74. (But see Lockwood, Prison Sexual Violence, p. 94, stating "there is no evidence that homosexual rape actually causes changes of sexual identity.") The language of another expert--speaking of a sexually abused inmate as having "part[ed] with his manhood"--similarly suggests that raped inmates somehow become female. Alan J. Davis, "Report on Sexual Assaults in a Prison System and Sheriff's Vans," in Leon Radzinowicz and Marvin E. Wolfgang, eds., Crime and Justice, 2d ed. (New York: Basic Books, 1977).

253. Letter to Human Rights Watch from M.B., Indiana, October 10, 1996.

254. Letter to Human Rights Watch from R.E., Florida, March 5, 1999.

255. Human Rights Watch interview, Texas, March 1999.

256. Letter to Human Rights Watch from J.O., Utah, February 18, 1997.

257. See, for example, Human Rights Watch, "Getting Away with Murder, Mutilation, and Rape: New Testimony from Sierra Leone," A Human Rights Watch Short Report, vol. 11, no. 3(A), June 1999. The report states: "Several girls and women abducted during January described pairing up and attaching themselves to one rebel so as to avoid gang-rape, be given a degree of protection, and be subjected to less hardship." Ibid., p. 34.

258. Letter to Human Rights Watch from W.M., Texas, October 31, 1996.

259. The phenomenon of renaming raped men has also been reported in the context of armed conflict. A New York Times article on Russia's conflict in Chechnya, for example, includes an account of how two men allegedly raped by Russian soldiers were given female names after the rape. Michael Wines, "Chechens Report Torture in Russian Camps," New York Times, February 18, 2000.

260. Letter to Human Rights Watch from J.D., Texas, November 5, 1996.

261. Letter to Human Rights Watch from T.B., Texas, October 23, 1996.

262. Letter to Human Rights Watch from T.D., Texas, March 14, 1997.

263. Letter to Human Rights Watch from G.H., Texas, December 1, 1998. The responsibility for household chores, typical in such accounts, is consistent with the idea that these victimized prisoners are substituting for women (in the most traditional sense). Another such prisoner, for example, spoke of being forced into sex and into "performing other duties as a woman, such as making his bed." M.P., Arkansas, pro se federal civil rights complaint filed August 2, 1996.

264. Letter to Human Rights Watch from C.D., Indiana, November 20, 1996.

265. The amendment, adopted in 1865, states:

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

U.S. Constitution, Thirteenth Amendment.

266. Rideau, "The Sexual Jungle," p. 75.

267. The view of rape as a crime of violence rather than sexual passion found its most prominent exponent in Susan Brownmiller, whose work Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, is a touchstone for work on the topic. Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1975).

268. The opinion of a federal court in Pennsylvania, for example, in a case involving sex between inmates, betrays the assumption that rape is sexually motivated. The court stated: "Prison rapes are a serious problem . . . Perhaps forward-looking legislative and administrative reforms with respect to conjugal visits will alleviate the problem of prison rape." United States v. Brewer, 363 F. Supp. 606, 608 (M.D. Pa. 1973).

269. See, for example, Lee H. Browker, Prison Victimization (New York: Elsevier, 1980), p. 7; Anthony M. Scacco, Jr., Rape in Prison (Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas, 1975), p. 47; Rideau, "The Sexual Jungle," pp. 74-75; Victor Hassine, Life Without Parole: Living in Prison Today (Los Angeles: Roxbury Publishing, 1996), pp. 111-12.

270. Rideau, "The Sexual Jungle," p. 74.

271. Letter to Human Rights Watch from D.G., Virginia, November 17, 1996.

272. Letter to Human Rights Watch from D.A., Nebraska, September 6, 1996.

273. Letter to Human Rights Watch from D.W., Kansas, February 23, 1998.

274. Letter to Human Rights Watch from J.O., Utah, February 18, 1997. A letter from a prisoner to the editor of Prison Life Magazine similarly illustrates the use of "punk" as the ultimate term of opprobrium:

    Dear [editor], You're a fucking punk! . . . . you take it up the ass, pole smoker! I'd bust your fucking grape open if I could get my hands on you . . . . Don't be a punk . . . .

Prison Life Magazine (October 1996), p. 11.

275. Letter to Human Rights Watch from J.G., Colorado, January 31, 1999.

276. Lockwood, "Issues in Prison Sexual Violence," p. 101.

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