Aug. 3, 2006 – Lying on his bed, Keith DeBlasio felt his assailant climbing on top of him again, about to continue the nightmare that had dragged on for weeks. This time, he finally mustered his strength and managed to fight back and stop the attacks.
But by then, recalled DeBlasio, now 38, in an interview with The NewStandard, he was already infected with HIV and psychologically defeated. At his high-security prison, subjected to repeated rapes by a fellow inmate as guards stood by, he was trapped in more ways than one.
â€œThere was no such thing as protection at this institution,â€� he said.
New data released Sunday by the Department of Justice suggest that sexualized violence in prisons and jails is claiming more victims than previously reported. The statistics merely highlight the deep scars of survivors like DeBlasio. But as activists work to bring the issue of prison rape out of the shadows of the system, the study points to the complexities of protecting inmates from sexualized violence in an environment that is inhospitable by design.
Based on the records of system officials, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported that 6,241 incidents of sexual misconduct and violence took place in 2005, or almost 3 violations per 1,000 inmates nationwide. Fifty-five percent of incidents were described by the report as â€œsexual misconductâ€� or â€œsexual harassmentâ€� perpetrated by staff against inmates, while 45 percent involved inmate-on-inmate â€œcoerced sex actsâ€� or â€œabusive sexual contact.â€�
The latest data on prison sexual violence point to the complexities of protecting inmates from sexualized violence in an environment that is inhospitable by design.
The report was mandated by the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, landmark legislation that authorized various programs to research sexualized violence in prisons and jails. The release of the findings coincides with several investigative hearings convened by the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission â€“ a panel of prisonersâ€™ advocates, prison-industry representatives and others tasked under the Act with studying the issue.
The number of reported incidents rose by nearly 16 percent from 2004 to 2005, though the BJS attributes the increase mainly to more thorough reporting from facilities. Both the government and activist groups say that the official statistics, which register only those abuse allegations processed by prison-system officials, may capture just a tiny sliver of the problem.
A 2000 study by University of South Dakota researchers, based on anonymous surveys of inmates at seven male prisons in the Midwest, found that more than one-in-five prisoners had experienced â€œcoerced sexual contactâ€� since entering state custody. About 4 percent reported being raped within the previous 30 months. According to the inmatesâ€™ reports, susceptibility to sexual coercion increased with the intensity of racial conflict between black and white inmates, lower levels of staffing and security, and the facilityâ€™s proportion of inmates convicted of violent crimes.
Both the government and activist groups say that the official statistics, which register only those abuse allegations processed by prison-system officials, may capture just a tiny sliver of the problem.
For DeBlasio, while doing time for fraud in Michigan during the mid-1990s, he quickly realized that resistance was pointless. Coolly, he recalled how his attacker had the backing of fellow gang members and was well-connected with prison guards, who moved him around the facility upon request so he could be close to his targets.
â€œEven if I made it [out] without getting myself killed and then went to the officers, I wasnâ€™t in any better shape,â€� he said. â€œI wouldnâ€™t have been protected.â€�
Advocates for prisoners say a combination of overcrowding, bureaucratic ineptitude and dehumanizing conditions keeps sexualized violence hidden in the incarcerated population.
About 15 percent of investigated allegations of inmate forced-sex acts and staff sexual misconduct were actually substantiated, or officially proven, according to the BJS. Most of the remainder were dismissed due to lack of evidence. Of the substantiated incidents of inmate-on-inmate sexual assaults, only half led to legal sanctions. Roughly 45 percent of proven staff misconduct incidents resulted in arrest or prosecution.
Prisonersâ€™ rights advocates say an untold number of incidents go unreported because inmates assume that complaining will lead to nothing or will make them even less safe. Though victims might be moved or cordoned off to be kept away from potential attackers, groups warn such measures frequently fail to protect an inmate from retaliation.
Human Rights Watch has criticized the grievance procedures used in many facilities as daunting and traumatic for victims, sometimes forcing inmates to testify directly against their assailants. Alison Parker, acting director of the groupâ€™s United States program, said that in cases of staff-perpetrated violations, undergoing an internally administered judicial process â€œcan be quite frightening in a prison context, when prison officials have complete control over oneâ€™s existence.â€�
While some groups push for administrative reforms, others want to abolish hardline mainstream incarceration policies by moving toward â€œde-carceration."
The Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996 blocks inmates from directly bringing their claims before federal courts, forcing them instead to exhaust the facilityâ€™s own grievance processes first. Human Rights Watch has called for more responsive mechanisms for addressing prisoner complaints, confidential reporting procedures and more regular criminal prosecutions of suspected abusers.
Reform-minded groups, like the national organization Stop Prisoner Rape, are pushing for measures to ensure adequate staffing of facilities and to improve inmate classification and housing systems to protect vulnerable groups. Often-cited reforms include separating prisoners with violent tendencies from non-violent convicts and segregating especially vulnerable inmates from potential predators. Advocates also call for broadening access to mental health services, which traumatized survivors often find extremely limited or nonexistent.
Many involved in the policy debates on prison rape focus on overcrowding as a safety problem, if not an ethical one. Even some officials within the system are wary of the rapid growth of the nationâ€™s incarcerated population â€“ now topping 2 million.
â€œThe best way to reduce the incidents of sexual assault and prison rape is to reduce the number of people in prisons and jails,â€� said New York City Correction Commissioner Martin Horn in testimony before the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission in March.
At the same time, more radical organizations want to abolish hardline mainstream incarceration policies by moving toward â€œde-carceration,â€� emphasizing less-punitive alternatives to imprisonment. Groups like Critical Resistance argue that as long as the prison system keeps sweeping up youth and people convicted of non-violent crimes, it will keep producing new victims of abuse.
Vanessa Huang of Justice Now, a California-based advocacy group for female prisoners, said that activists should avoid â€œjust focusing on the conditions of confinementâ€� and instead view incidents of sexual abuse as an outgrowth of â€œstructuralâ€� power imbalances â€“ both inside and outside prison walls â€“ along lines of race, class, gender and sexuality. In her view, â€œImprisonment is fundamentally a violent system.â€�
Chino Hardin, a New York-based organizer with the Prison Moratorium Project, which opposes the expansion of the prison system, told TNS that when she was a teenager housed at an adult womenâ€™s facility, an older inmate tried to assault her in the shower. Though she fought the woman off, Hardin was left with a deep impression of the desperation that she believes drove the attack.
â€œYou treat people like animals, you lock them in cages,â€� said Hardin, now 26. â€œAt some point, the only thing they have control over is their body.â€�
Rose Braz, campaign director for Critical Resistance, said the main achievement of the Prisoner Rape Elimination Act is that it reveals the need to transform how the country treats those who break the law. The primary obstacle to combating sexualized violence in prison, she argued, is a â€œreliance on prisons as this all-purpose answer to what really are social, political and economic problems. And until you fundamentally start reversing that reliance, these measures that you put in place really arenâ€™t going to address the core problems.â€�