Welcome back! In “Sex In Prison, Part One,” I presented the recent study entitled “Incarcerated Black Men Report Sex in Prison, Posing Challenges for HIV Prevention and Treatment” that gave this sobering conclusion: Black men, who are vastly over represented within our prison system, comprise a high percentage of HIV-positive inmates. And according to that study–conducted by the Columbia University School of Nursing–these males pose an infection risk not only to other inmates, but to members of their communities once they are released.
“While sex is prohibited in U.S. prisons, sexual encounters are commonplace and few inmates express concern about getting or spreading HIV,” stated one of the authors, Tawandra Rowell-Cunsolo, PhD, Assistant Professor of Social Welfare Science at the Columbia University School of Nursing.
Now in “Sex In Prison, Part Two,” I’m spotlighting just how prevalent sexual activity (both consensual and forced) is behind bars—vis-à-vis the experiences of male prisoners.
Helping Me Helping You…So to Speak.
Daniel Genis spent ten years incarcerated. In his 2014 memoir, “A Gentleman’s Guide To Sex In Prison,” Genis shares his observations of consensual sex in lockdown:
“I can only speak for myself, but in my own time in the New York State system, I rarely saw or even heard about non-consensual sex between men. Perhaps I was just very lucky. Maybe I’d been incarcerated only in the ‘softer’ corners of the penal system. Rape does happen, and all over any prison there are signs with a number to call to anonymously report it, which I always thought was less a matter of sodomy than of legal liability.”
“But more common, from what I could see, was an older prisoner taking a young and inexperienced kid under his wing. Most often, this kid has no money and likes to get high; there are many such people in prison, and they tend to burn their bridges early and totally. And so the older man, who has usually already served major time, feeds the kid, and gets him a little something to smoke or snort. Now the kid has become a ‘fish’. They start working out together, then showering together, then there is a massage, and finally, the kid is asked to ‘help’ the older guy out. He’s ‘no homo,’ but he has needs…”
“Consensual sex between incarcerated men happens all the time. There are rules against it, as it is considered an ‘unhygienic act’, and you can go to the Special Housing Unit (aka the Box) for it. Which is ironic, because then you will be locked in a room with another man for 24 hours a day, with barely any supervision. Solitary, at least in New York State, is not solitary at all, but a deux (for or involving two people)–as it is cheaper to house men this way. If ever there was a venue for either forcible or consensual sex between men, it is therein provided.”
The author adds,
“Openly gay men are not as oppressed as one might fear. The feminine ones are often desired, and there is quite a bit of prostitution going on. I once saw oral sex performed in exchange for two cigarettes and a honey bun…”
The Howard League for Penal Reform is the oldest penal reform charity in the United Kingdom (UK). Established in 1866, it is named after John Howard, one of the first prison reformers.
The organization’s recent report, “Sex In Prison: Experiences Of Former Prisoners,” also details consensual sex within the cellblock. According to the report:
“Gay and bisexual interviewees, and other interviewees who became aware of sexual activity in men’s prisons, stated that sexual partners were mostly other gay and bisexual prisoners. Sometimes, however, sexual partners were men who self-identified as heterosexual, some of whom were described as being, in their manner and topic of conversation, ‘macho’ and ‘anti-gay’. Some were known to be sustaining a relationship, through social visits, telephone calls, and letters, with a wife or girlfriend.
“These men would typically request oral sex, or would anally penetrate the gay prisoner. Gay interviewees reported that these partners—men they described as ‘prison gays’, ‘jail gays’, or ‘gay on the inside’, never acknowledged the homosexual nature of what had occurred between them, and would subsequently ignore them on the wing. They were neither surprised nor offended by straight sexual partners, as this interview excerpt illustrates:
Craig: ‘Oh my god, it was like I’d died and gone to heaven! As a gay man, prison was a fabulous sexual experience! I’ve never had so much sex. I was very popular, and I loved it!
‘He’d come in, not say a word, pull his cock out, I’d suck him off, and that was it; out the door again. Never said a word!’
Interviewer: ‘And how did you feel about that?’
Craig: ‘What do you mean?’
Interviewer: ‘Well, did you feel, for example, you had been used sexually?’
Craig: ‘No, not at all! We both got what we wanted’.”
Then there’s Sean, who stated to the interviewer: “’For men, sex is a physical need, a need for sexual release. An erect penis must be attended to. You can deal with it yourself, of course, but if there’s the chance of sex…so much the better’!”
Between a Rock (Actually, a Boulder) and a Hard Place.
The Wyatt O’Brian Evans Show, my eponymous internet radio program, tackled the issue of sexual assault/rape of incarcerated LGBTQ individuals (with the focus on males) last year. (The Wyatt O’Brian Evans Show returns in a new format later this year. Look for it.) My special guest was the Reverend Jason M. Lydon, community minister for the Unitarian Universalist Church in Boston. A victim of sexual assault while imprisoned, he’s the founding director of Black and Pink, an organization that supports incarcerated LGBTQ persons.
But before I detail Rev. Lydon’s story–as well as the experiences of other imprisoned individuals–allow me to share some facts from Just Detention International (JDI), a health and human rights organization seeking to end sexual abuse in all forms of detention. JDI maintains the belief that “rape is not part of the penalty.”
According to JDI, “Sexual abuse behind bars is a systemic, nationwide human rights crisis. It is estimated that roughly 200,000 people were sexually abused in a single year. About half of the prisoners reporting abuse were victimized by staff—the very people whose job it is to keep them safe.”
And get this: “People who are LGBTQ face staggering levels of sexual assault in detention; LGBTQ prisoners were abused by other inmates at a rate more than ten times higher than straight prisoners. On average, each prisoner rape survivor is assaulted three to five times a year.”
And there’s more. “Prisoner rape survivors rarely get confidential rape crisis counseling, even though such counseling is known to reduce the effects of trauma. Incarcerated survivors who speak out are often mocked, ignored, or retaliated against by inmates or staff. Inmates who report abuse were as likely to be punished themselves as to get to talk to an investigator or see their abuser held accountable.”
Lastly, “With limited or no access to medical care and counseling, prisoner rape survivors often develop long-term health problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and drug addiction. Moreover, the high rates of HIV and other STDs in detention facilities put survivors at risk for infection. Once released, many survivors turn to self-destructive behaviors that keep them trapped in a cycle of poverty, crime and re-incarceration.”
By providing survivor testimonies, JDI provides a window into the horrors of sexual assault and rape behind bars:
- Andrew, from Florida. A corrections officer sexually abused him in a Florida prison. When Andrew reported the abuse, the officer retaliated, and the abuse grew worse.
- Micah, from California. Micah was raped and tortured by law enforcement officers in a police lock-up. He faced many challenges trying to report the abuse, and was denied follow-up services, such as counseling and medical care. Micah has since been released from jail and is struggling to rebuild his life while facing the emotional scars of the abuse.
- Rodney, from Louisiana. Rodney is an openly gay man who was repeatedly sexually assaulted by inmates in two Louisiana jails while serving time for check fraud. He was sold into sexual slavery from one prisoner to another, and was forced to abandon his male identity as his only way to survive.
- Rodney, from Texas. At 17, Rodney committed suicide after being continuously raped and abused in Texas prisons.
Rev. Lydon is a survivor of prison sexual assault, who stated that he was strip searched a total of 24 times. During one of those strip searches, according to the reverend, a prison guard used verbal threats to force him to masturbate in front of him. “He then grabbed my testicles, squeezed them, and verbally abused me,” according to Rev. Lydon. “I was fortunate that there was not penetrative violence, etc.”
Did the reverend report the abuse to authorities? “Who would I tell? I didn’t know who to tell. Then, I was placed in solitary confinement, 23 hours a day.” He stated that anecdotal evidence shows that less than 50 percent of victims report sexual assault/rape.
So, just how did he cope? How did he heal? “I compartmentalized it all,” Rev. Lydon responded. Becoming involved with Just Detention International, building Black and Pink, and helping other survivors enabled him to heal.
During that interview with the reverend, I asked if there were a culture of prison sexual assault/rape. Unequivocally he responded, “Yes. Sexual violence is the key to the ongoing functioning of the prison system. Sexual violence is part of the tool box to maintain the control of the bodies of those locked up.”
Is There a “Great Escape?”
So, are inmates totally “between a rock (actually, a boulder) and a hard place? Are they totally without resources to keep them safe?
Maybe not. There is PREA, the Prison Rape Elimination Act. Unanimously passed by Congress in 2003, PREA is the nation’s first federal civil law that addresses sexual violence behind bars. JDI was instrumental in its passage.
This legislation’s signature achievement was the development of national standards to prevent and respond to rape of those incarcerated. And in 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice issued its PREA standards, which include: improved protections for LGBTQ individuals; quality crisis services for survivors; and prisoner education on the right to be safe behind bars.
JDI states that these are encouraging trends. But according to the organization, “we still have plenty of work to do before the standards will result in the dramatic culture shift needed to end prisoner rape. Sexual abuse remains rampant in prisons and jails nationwide. Too many people in detention have not yet seen PREA make a difference in their daily lives.”
However, JDI added, “But prisoners and jails that take the PREA standards seriously are beginning to see results, among prisoners and staff alike. As one prisoner—a former PREA peer educator in California—said of changes on the yard, ‘People used to joke about sexual abuse. They don’t do that anymore’.” JDI collaborates directly with prison officials, assisting them in adopting the PREA provisions.
Rev. Lydon had this advice for those facing sexual violence in prison: “Each individual must weigh which is the best choice or route for him, and then make a decision. Be it reaching out to a guard, reporting the abuse, reaching out to the outside world (Black and Pink, for instance), or fighting back/defending themselves against those sexually assaulting him.
“We all make individual choices to survive. Survival is the goal. Therefore, don’t be ashamed of what you do—and need to do—in order to survive.”