Civil Liberties

Assault Behind Bars

How big a problem is prison rape -- and what can be done about it?


Shortly after the Enron scandal broke in 2001, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer declared that he would love to personally escort the company's CEO "to an eight-by-10 cell that he could share with a tattooed dude who says, 'Hi, my name is Spike, honey.'?" The negative reaction compelled Lockyer to offer a tepid apology in a letter to the Los Angeles Times, explaining that he had gotten carried away in righteous anger and pointing to the initiatives he had undertaken to curb prison rape.

The unusual thing about this incident was not that Lockyer made a crude joke about prison rape. It's that he caught flak for it. While jokes about male-on-female rape are widely viewed as taboo in this feminist age, male-on-male rape in prison is a perfectly acceptable and common subject of humor on late-night comedy shows, in movies, and even in TV commercials.

The reality, of course, is considerably less funny. It includes tragic cases such as that of Rodney Hulin, a 17-year-old inmate who hanged himself with a sheet in 1996 after prison officials repeatedly ignored his complaints of rape and other sexual abuse. Hulin's parents collected a $215,000 settlement from the state of Texas three years later.

A few years ago, a coalition ranging from Amnesty International to Focus on the Family began a push for measures to curb prison rape. In 2003 Congress held hearings on the issue and passed the Prison Rape Reduction Act, which directed state prison systems to collect statistics on sexual violence against inmates and to report on steps taken to reduce it.

The activists are up against a lot of social indifference. As prison-rape humor demonstrates, there is a widespread lack of sympathy for the victims, who are, after all, convicted criminals—even though rape wasn't a part of their sentence. While you would have to scrape the bottom of the Internet to find people saying that the fear of sexual assault is a good deterrent to would-be lawbreakers, it is safe to say that prison rape is not a high priority for most American voters.

Yet even with the will to do something about it, prison rape may be uniquely difficult to address. It's a challenge even to get a reliable estimate of its prevalence. Activists argue that rape in American prisons is an endemic problem, with as many as 200,000 or 300,000 rapes behind bars every year. Other experts question those figures. A review of the literature by Gerald G. Gaes of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and Andrew L. Goldberg of the National Institute of Justice, published by the latter agency in March 2004, found that estimates of how many male inmates experience forced sex during incarceration range from nearly 10 percent to less than 1 percent.

In the Midwestern prison study that yielded the high-end estimate, by University of South Dakota psychologist Cindy Struckman-Johnson and her colleagues, the inmates were given questionnaires they could fill out and send back at their discretion. Gaes and Goldberg point out that only about 25 percent of the survey forms were returned, raising the question of response bias: Prisoners who had been raped may have been more likely to return the questionnaire. They also suggested that the method "raises suspicions about collusion" among prisoners.

By contrast, Case Western Reserve University cultural anthropologist Mark S. Fleisher, who was hired by the U.S. Justice Department in 2004 to do a comprehensive study of prison rape, found not a single inmate in more than 500 interviews who claimed he had been raped. But Fleisher's method of face-to-face interviews with prisoners, on a topic as sensitive as prison rape, does not seem ideally suited to elicit candor.

Fleisher's study, "The Culture of Prison Sexual Violence" (which has not been officially published by the Justice Department but is available on the website of the National Criminal Justice Reference Service), caused a flurry of controversy when preliminary reports of his findings were released in May 2006. Fleisher seemed to downplay the problem of sexual violence behind bars, asserting that the ubiquity of violent rape in prison is a media-perpetuated myth that bears little relation to reality. In fact, he argues, inmates tend to see most of the sexual activity that occurs in prison as consensual.

Yet Fleisher's own report gives little cause to endorse the inmates' views. In the prison culture, he notes, it is widely believed that "a man cannot be raped unless he wants to be," that a man who does not fight back against a sexual assault as forcefully as he can is in effect consenting to sex, and that it's not rape if the victim is gay. Sexual coercion without overt physical violence—through threats of force, offers of protection, and other exchange of favors—may not be seen as rape by many prisoners, but there's no reason the rest of us should agree.

One of Fleisher's own "nonraped" interviewees gives a matter-of-fact account of acceding to sexual demands from an inmate who had earlier taken him under his wing and whom he had seen as an older brother: "He said I could either do it or he'd take it. So I bent over and let him do it to me." While such abuse may not be as dramatic as the stereotype of gang rape in the showers, that doesn't make it acceptable.

Yet it would also be unwise to accept the activists' claims at face value. As we have learned from the examples of domestic violence, sexual assault on campus, and homelessness, advocacy groups are prone to the abuse of statistics—and to the use of unreliable narratives.

For instance, while the story of Rodney Hulin is a horrific one, the summaries in anti–prison rape advocacy literature omit a number of facts that do not fit the narrative of a teenager who finds himself in prison for a minor crime (setting fire to a dumpster) and is driven to suicide by sexual assaults after the authorities turn a deaf ear to his pleas.

A 1999 story in the Houston Press revealed that Hulin had a history of violence, mental illness, self-endangerment, bizarre sexual behavior, and apparently baseless claims of sexual abuse against his own father. While it's likely that he was indeed sexually assaulted in prison, it is also likely that the worst part of the prison authorities' negligence was their decision to classify the teenager as psychologically sound without a proper evaluation, and to deny him the psychiatric care he clearly needed.

But there is no doubt that the response to Hulin's complaints of sexual assault was shamefully inadequate: No investigation was conducted even after a medical examination showed tears in his rectum, and a physician's assistant blamed the injuries on constipation. Hulin's mother, Linda Bruntmeyer, says that her own complaint to the warden was brushed aside with a matter-of-fact statement that rapes in prison happen and her son needed to grow up.

In an email exchange, I asked Fleisher whether enough was being done to address the prison rape problem and what further steps could be taken. His reply: "Correctional administrators are serious about all aspects of prison administration and management." This optimistic assessment is undermined by much evidence that correctional staff too often see sexual coercion as a part of the prison culture that inmates have to either accept or handle on their own.

Changing this culture will take more than federally mandated posters reminding inmates that sexual assault is a crime and urging them to break the code of silence. At present, it is very difficult—virtually impossible in some states—for inmates who have been raped to collect damages from the prison system. Guards who neglect or even condone inmate-on-inmate assaults run virtually no risk of punishment. Other serious measures to combat prison rape would include both "conservative" solutions (stricter prisoner supervision) and "liberal" ones (less overcrowding).

Even lower-end estimates given by correctional organizations suggest that 20,000 to 40,000 inmates are sexually assaulted in American prisons every year. Those are figures no civilized society should accept.

Contributing Editor Cathy Young blogs at

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