Revolution #183, November 15, 2009

Rape in Prison: A Concentration of Patriarchal Mentality & A Tool of Social Control

One particularly horrific abuse of prisoners is rape. Rape is done by prison guards—particularly in women’s prisons—and it is also carried out by inmates against other inmates.

At the age of 18, Dorothy (her last name has not been publicized by her supporters), a Native American woman from upstate New York, left the reservation where she grew up, and married a much older man. Her husband beat her for years, even when she was in advanced stages of pregnancy. When she tried to run away, he broke her ribs and put a pistol to her head threatening to shoot her. At the age of 22, Dorothy began a life sentence for killing her abusive husband. Shortly after her arrival in prison, a guard began demanding sex. She refused, and he began to withhold about half of her ration of food, and her soap and toilet paper. One day, the guard found Dorothy alone in the laundry room. He locked the door from the inside, and although Dorothy fought back, he raped her. When she tried to gain access to the prison’s mental health services for counseling, she was turned away, eventually offered Thorazine, a dangerous and mind-numbing drug. Defying threats if she spoke out, she reported the rape to the prison superintendent and a counselor in the mental health unit, and to the state’s investigative office, to no response. After over a year, she joined a lawsuit filed against the guard and the prison. The suit was dismissed without even addressing the merits of the case, based on laws that make it almost impossible for inmates to sue prison guards. (“Words From Prison: Sexual Abuse in Prison,” ACLU)

Among men, rape is widespread. In one sense, this is a concentrated expression of the predatory and patriarchal mentality inculcated in males by this society, in a situation in which there are no women to dominate. At the same time, it is a tool of social control manipulated by the authorities. The widespread rape in U.S. prisons inflicts severe physical and emotional pain and trauma on the vulnerable young men who are its victims, as it does to women. It carries great risk of infecting victims with HIV/AIDS. In sensationalist “news” programming about prison life, and TV dramas, prison rape is depicted as a product of a prison population of predators and psychopaths, carried out despite the best efforts of authorities to stop it. But, if prison authorities are trying to prevent prison rape, under conditions where they monitor and control prisoners’ every move, then why is it that, according to a 2003 Congressional study, over a million inmates had been raped over the previous 20 years. A million inmates.

An ABC News report in April of 2009 quoted a former prison guard, Johnny Vasquez, as saying that when prisoners came to guards with complaints of being raped, they were told, “You need to grow some and defend yourself. Quit coming in here crying. Get out of my office. Don’t bring this to me.” That, in essence, is an expression of the depraved kill-or-be-killed (and relatedly, macho male supremacist) values and morality of the system that runs the prisons and uses rape as a tool to promote and enforce those values.

Harvard University criminologist Dr. James Gilligan told ABC that authorities use rape as a “bribe or a reward” to powerful inmates “to cooperate with the prison authorities.” “As long as they cooperate, the prison authorities will permit them to have their victims.” The ABC report summed up: “Experts say some prison officials quietly permit rape as a way to control the population.”

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