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Torture in the American Gulag by Tom Cahill, Part 4

(Torture in the American Gulag . . . )

The appalling conditions behind bars are scarcely conceivable in free society. Statistics do not provide a clear picture of these conditions, but they can begin to establish a useful perspective. For instance: In 1995, each day, 83,000 adult male prisoners were raped in US correctional institutions, according to a report by Stephen Donaldson, of SPR. Donaldson’s statistics have yet to be challenged by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In fact Donaldson’s statistics may be so conservative, he may be off by half, according to Dr. Warren Farrell in The Myth of Male Power. And according to Carl Weiss and David Friar in their book Terror In The Prisons, published way back in 1974, “More men than women are raped every year in America. They are raped in prison.”

Not only prison officials, but the entire criminal justice system has a vested interest in keeping this barbarism covered-up. Why? Because they use prisoner rape as what is called a “management tool.”

Police officers and prosecuting attorneys use the threat of prisoner rape to coerce suspects into plea bargaining. Ex-prisoners who know what to expect behind bars are especially vulnerable to these threats. Police–and guards–use the threat of prisoner rape to coerce suspects and prisoners into becoming informers.

I believe the criminal justice system has become a vast criminal conspiracy that preys mostly on the poor while extorting money out of middleclass taxpayers through the use of misinformation such as all the rhetoric about drugs.

Politics and Prison Rape
Who is being raped behind bars? It’s certainly not the big drug lords or the vicious thugs in for murder and assault. It’s mostly the young, non-violent, first-offenders confined for a little too much pot and too poor to buy their freedom who fit the victim profile. The legislators and judges know all this. It’s their job to know.

A few politicians have spoken out. In 1970, in the wake of prison insurrections in our country, we find these comments on record:
“The appalling conditions and practices in many of our penal institutions can do more damage to a young person than his use of marijuana,” said then New York State Representative Ed Koch before he became Mayor of New York City.

But as Mayor of one of the greatest cities on earth, what did Ed Koch do to end those appalling conditions and practices?

“I think you are absolutely correct as to the consequences for these young men,” agreed then Philadelphia District Attorney Arlen Specter, now a Republican senator of Pennsylvania. “Men who got into the prison facilities and who are victims of attack, or who may join in the attack, come out more finely-honed weapons against society than when they went in. Can any of us understand the degradation and hatred a young man must feel when he is released into a community after being raped?” asked Specter.

Yet as a powerful and influential senator now, what is Arlen Specter doing to end the system of prison rape which creates so much degradation and hatred in young men?

Prisoner rape violates two amendments to the US Constitution, the 8th forbidding cruel and unusual punishment and the 13th forbidding slavery. (Many victims of prisoner rape become sexually enslaved by a dominant prisoner and are often forced into prostitution for contraband such as drugs which, in the reality of prison culture, are often smuggled in by guards.) Reactionaries predictably claim that prison rape doesn’t exist, complaining that, to the contrary, prisoners are coddled and prisons are too comfortable. Such voices are especially shrill when prison reform activists report on atrocities. (I observe reactionaries to be very selective about what parts of the Constitution they defend. For instance, property rights, “yes,” and to hell with human rights.)

Curbing Prisoner Rape
There is one quick, simple and inexpensive solution to at least drastically cut down on prisoner rape and it has been used in San Francisco City/County Jail for more than a decade. I’ve been jailed there a number of times for civil disobedience and each time I was screened by a male nurse whose job it was to separate the obviously vulnerable prisoners from the obviously vicious.

So I’d like to thank San Francisco Sheriff Mike Hennessy and his staff for doing the decent thing and contributing to the solution rather than the problem. But it occurs to me, if the solution is so simple, why isn’t it more widespread? The extent to which it is not is evidence that SPR’s charge is correct, that prisoner rape is indeed used as a management tool.

God Is Truth
Christians say, God is love. But I go along with Gandhi who said “God is truth.” Despite having been intimate with perhaps the worst horror of confinement and despite being an emotional cripple as a result, I have long believed my rape in San Antonio thirty years ago was the greatest single lesson and the greatest single blessing of my life to date. It forced me to know myself, as Socrates urged his students. And it knocked me into a higher consciousness, closer to the Great Spirit.

From this great lesson and blessing, I remain optimistic that the prophecy of Victor Hugo will one day become a reality:

“We shall one day come to look upon crime as a disease. Physicians shall displace judges and hospitals the gallows. We shall pour oil and balm where we formerly applied iron and fire. And evil will be treated with charity instead of in anger—a change simple and sublime. The gentle laws of Christ will penetrate at last into the code and shine through its enactments.”

It is to this end we work; not just an end to prisoner rape. I rest my case.

Tom Cahill is a long-time political activist, mainly concerned with issues of justice and the environment. He’s been a member of Earth First! since 1990 and is currently president of Stop Prisoner Rape Inc. Tom lives on the Mendocino Coast of California. He can be reached at PO Box 632, Fort Bragg, CA 95437, or 707/964-0820. www.spr.org