It’s Called Rape

By: Troy J.

Well an editorial in the New York Times recently cited a report revealing that there were an estimated 60,000 rapes in men’s prisons and jails last year. Now there’s a subject few in the media are willing to discuss. Considering the low standards of today’s media, you would think that sex and violence would be a topic to make them salivate, but since most media decisions are made by men, rape in prison is probably a topic they are incapable of confronting. Oh they can sensationalize the issue as its been done on shows such as HBO’s “OZ,” or shows like “Lockdown,” but they can’t confront cause and effect, exploring and reporting on all of the ramifications of such a report.

When I saw the revival of the Off-Broadway prison drama, “Fortune In Men’s Eyes,” the play (when it was first performed in the 1960s) which led to the creation of The Fortune Society, an organization that works with people who were formerly incarcerated in New York, many people were introduced to the terror that the play suggested, and found a startling media silence. When I first read John Herbert’s harrowing tale of a young man sent to a reformatory, I was devastated. Smitty, the carefully chosen name of the protagonist, finds himself as a sexual pawn upon entering the institution. The first act of the play is concluded with the rape of Smitty, who has been manipulated by a jail-wise tough guy. The second act demonstrates how Smitty maneuvers to literally get out from under. He slowly becomes jail-wise and emerges as a predator. At the play’s conclusion, alone on his cot, he snarls to the audience, “I’ll get back at them. I’ll get back at you all.”

The play of course was a fictionalized account of the playwrights own experience. John Herbert explained to me once when I met him how power and control defines behavior in a prison setting. Denied any suggestion of humanity, violence is the surest form of expression. Historically prison officials have looked the other way, often seeing sex as a way of controlling the more difficult inmates. If there were 60,000 rapes in jails and prisons last year, you can be assured that the victims will be bringing an accumulated rage to the streets when they are released. Rape victims in prison are rarely treated – physically, emotionally, or psychologically. They survive through fear, anger, and revenge. Most prisoners learn to carry a weapon to protect themselves from sexual attacks. One man who I saw at The Fortune Society told me that the single lesson he learned in his first prison experience was how to stab someone, something that’s not unlearned upon release. This is an issue rarely discussed at correction conferences.

The media fear of the subject is mixed with misinformation. They always describe the acts as homosexual rape conveying the impression that homosexuals are sexually assaulting other men. In fact any probing would reveal that the acts are about violence and control, and most of the aggressors are obtrusively heterosexual. During prison riots there are always reports of rape inflicted on snitches, sometimes on oppressive guards, and in one institution the warden was sodomized. The victims were always identified as people who were despised, and the sexual act was performed as the most humiliating act they could conceive.

One of the most important lessons learned from the feminist movement was the treatment of women after being attacked. Before women took charge of this issue, rape victims were often challenged. The prevailing sentiment was, “Why fight it? Just relax and enjoy it,” or “She was asking for it by the way she dressed.” Police officers were indifferent at best, and there was little emotional support. All of that has been altered by an enlightened activist feminist constituency in the last three decades.

There is no such attitude or support for male victims particularly in prisons. In fact victims are most often labeled, mocked, and repeatedly targeted for attack. The options are self-imposed solitary confinement, reporting it which could lead to being stabbed, or committing suicide.

Are there any solutions? Within correction institutions as they now exist, probably few. Machismo posturing and strutting walk hand-in-hand with the methods imposed in a prison setting. We might have to go back to the drawing board and redefine what it is to be a man. But I think the answers to rape in prison, which becomes a social problem when these angry victims are released, is about our concept of prison and punishment. It’s an environment which nurtures violence and irrationality; often self destructive behavior. Few people in prison ever have the opportunity to confront why they’re there. Not just about the conviction, but everything that define their anti-social and criminal behavior, their addictions, and their escape from responsibility.

I would challenge the American Correction Association (ACA) to have some dialogue about rape in prison at their annual conferences. The problem is, as one who has attended those ACA events, is that the behavior of the keepers is often similar to that of the inmates; a society that allows such dehumanization and doesn’t protest, or question, has to do some self examination. That means the challenge starts with me, and with you. We can’t sit around and wait for others to assume the responsibility.

I’m Troy J., out on a limb.

9 Comments on “It’s Called Rape”

  1. it is a wonder how much we, as a society, refuse to see … I believe the common wisdom is that anyone in prison deserves what they get … after all they are criminals …. I’ll bet no wayward congressman has been raped in prison … I’ll bet the powers that be, will not allow Cameron Douglas to be raped while he is in prison .. we seem to not to want to talk about lots of things … many of them the things that truly define us … we are not a caring society, giving to issues and truly getting involved in solutions is just too much trouble. Wonderful article and issue, thanks.

  2. One of the things that usually comes up during a discussion about improving prison conditions is, “you can’t expect to place someone in abnormal conditions and expect to return a normal person to society.” I discovered while living in Mexico, their prisons were set up much like a small zocalo, with a basketball court, tables and benches, even booths selling food, sodas and trinkets. The booths were owned by inmates who either worked at one of the available jobs inside the prison to make money; mechanics, carving, carpentry, etc., or whose wives and families helped bring their kitchen or shop specialties inside. There was no lock down inside the prison walls. Any cubicle you owned you paid for from your earnings. If you didn’t work and had no one giving you money, you slept out in the zocalo like any bum. Wives, mothers, children, sisters, friends were allowed inside the compound unsupervised during visiting hours. Sometimes, wives and girlfriends were allowed to spend the night. A couple of nights a week, prisoners from the woman’s prison were allowed to visit. I asked how it was that that Mexico could have such an easy going social structure behind their prison walls and i was told that the people felt it was punishment enough to isolate a person from society. They didn’t feel they needed to be punished further by placing them in cages and forcing them to live unnatural lives.

    Americans need to get over their deep fascination with punishment. It goes hand in hand with the increasingly vicious cycle of violence. We punish people who are different, who are poor, who live by moral codes we haven’t familiarized ourselves with, then wonder why they are bitter. We are punishing ourselves. Each person we push away from us as tainted and unworthy, is another person who could have helped us build tomorrow but will not for lack of motivation, for lack of care as to what happens to us.

    I’m glad you brought up the subject, Troy. It won’t be easy to turn around the attitudes regarding punishment versus rehabilitation, but it’s necessary. Our primary labor force is behind bars, often serving hard time for petty “three strike” violations or simple drug possession. We need to ask ourselves why we have more people behind bars than any other country in the world, including China, and exactly what we’re going to do about it.

  3. Indeed, a subject that is either ignored or ridiculed. One of the sub-products of feminism, though it was not made intentionnaly, was to separate male and female sexuality and qualify them differently. But, as we are quick to understand, rape is rape, and we as human beings live it quite similarly.

    There are currently more prisonners in the US than there are farmers (an estimated 30 million), naturally, they do not ‘cure’ anyone, as comedian Bill Hicks said, if you go to jail for something like smoking marijuana, you get out shooting heroin into your eyeballs. So to speak.

    Thanks for this great article.


  4. This is an important issues to address and I second everyone here who has already said as much.
    Rape is and has always been about power no matter who is committing it or being victimized by it. People are less sensitive to men in this situation. Even when we recognize it there is a tendency to sweep it under the rug a “what happens in prison stays in prison” attitude. People also tend to brush off gay men being raped as if they should appreciate the attention somehow. Gay men do not enjoy rape anymore than anyone else. It is a violation of a sacred act no matter which way you look at it.

    At issue is the fact that men don’t have available the “take back the night” programs or Rape Crisis Intervention that women do to get the help they need to heal their psyche. In a lot of cases even if they did, how does a man go about talking about this gross violation and retain their sense of manhood?

    I don’t agree that this is a result of feminism. This was occuring way before the feminist movement. What I do see is women tend to mis-understand what a man’s emotions around this may be. Feminists and women in general should get behind men who are suffering. They should be able to advocate for them as strongly as they do other women. Also we shouldn’t think that because someone is being punished for one crime they deserve any treatment they are subject to, too many people come out of prison more hardened than when they went in with no resources or recourse to begin anew, thus we create a bigger problem than we had to begin with.

  5. Let’s be honest, prison is a stick society uses to threaten people into compliance with its “law” – the bigger and uglier the stick, the less people will risk incurring its wrath. Prison rape helps make that stick even bigger, so the social establishment sees it as a plus: in other words, prison rape occurs because society *wants* it to occur!

    Until that stick called prison is taken out of the hands of society altogether, expect this violation of the individual’s sovereignty to continue…

  6. @Christopher

    I had to take a minute or two to think about your post. Specifically I had to think about whether I agree that society “wants” prison rape to occur.
    I think you might be right about that. I think our society is in such a love/hate relationship with itself that it does want that. That even in most people’s deep un-stated psyche’s they like to hear about it…Just Desserts and all that.

    I guess what I personally think and what is most upsetting to me is that the system of the “stick and carrot” quite simply doesn’t work. It makes mountains out of molehills. Petty criminals come out with rage and training that they didn’t go into the joint with. Or mental health disorders bloom in the concrete jungle that is their mostly temporary home. Either way when we are appeasing our society with “due punishment” we are creating the very monsters that we claim to be so afraid of.

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