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.