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Brutality behind bars

National | Savage prison gang rapes turn many run-of-the-mill prisoners into violent felons-in-waiting. Reformers say it's time to rein in jailhouse predators

Issue: "One president, under God," Feb. 3, 2001

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.

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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.

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