Even as the gates slammed shut and he stepped out into the roar of the main cellblock, T.J. Parsell was still in denial. He had landed in prison after a drunken prank with a toy gun netted him $50 and two and a half years. His older brother, who had served some brief jail time, had given him some advice: Look tough. Show no fear. Be a man.
But even if Parsell could have kept his shoulders back, his chin cocked and the panic out of his eyes as he walked beneath five stories of barred cells, through the echoes of slamming doors, the clatter of chow trays and the shouts of 500 inmates, they already knew: This paper-thin kid with a desperate game face was fresh meat. Barely six weeks later, according to Parsell, he had been drugged, gang-raped by three inmates and “sold” to a fourth with the flip of a coin. He was 17 years old.
Parsell’s story is horrifying, but hardly surprising. And therein lies a paradox: If prison rape is as prevalent as it is thought to be, it stands as one of the most appallingly frequent human rights abuses in America. But as a matter of public concern, when the victims are male, the issue remains little more than a dirty joke.
In 2001 Human Rights Watch attempted to turn off the canned laughter. Drawing on testimonies from 200 prisoners in thirty-four states, HRW released a report titled “No Escape: Male Rape in US Prisons.” The findings suggested that male rape, often accompanied by almost unimaginable violence, is widespread throughout the US prison system. The report was damning enough to help convince Congress to pass the optimistically named 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act. In writing PREA, Congress estimated that 13 percent of inmates had been sexually assaulted. Even if that is (as many experts believe) a conservative estimate, it translates into a stunning number of victims. “Nearly 200,000 inmates now incarcerated have been or will be the victims of prison rape,” the act states. “The total number of inmates who have been sexually assaulted in the past 20 years likely exceeds 1,000,000.”
The act is intended to tackle rape in both male and female prisons; there is no reliable gender breakdown of prison rape victims, but 93 percent of America’s prison population is male.
Despite the bold promise implied by its name, PREA hasn’t made a dent in the statistics so far. Although the act sets out to define new standards for detection, prevention, reduction and punishment of prison rape, no new standards have yet been established–and when they are, they are unlikely to go into effect before 2010. Even then, it is by no means certain that they will be effectively enforced.
But the problem goes deeper than inadequate legislation. The prevailing social attitude toward male prison rape was typified by California Attorney General Bill Lockyer back in 2001, when Enron CEO Ken Lay was in the news. “I would love to personally escort Lay,” Lockyer said, “to an 8-by-10 cell that he could share with a tattooed dude who says, Hi, my name is Spike, honey.”
“I think in a lot of ways this issue is where the women’s issue was about thirty years ago,” says Lara Stemple, former executive director of Stop Prisoner Rape, the only national organization dedicated to advocating on behalf of prison-rape survivors. “People still make jokes about men being raped that people would never make about women.” If the male victim is behind bars, the problem is compounded. Louise Kindley, a veteran rape-crisis counselor who recently opened New York’s first program for male survivors, says, “There is an idea that they deserve it.”