They Deserve It

By Dan Bell

The Nation
July 10, 2006

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.”

As a first-time teenage offender, Parsell fit the profile of a prison rape victim to a T. After an initial six weeks on lockdown, he was transferred into the general population at Riverside Correctional Facility, at that time (the late 1970s) one of Michigan’s three “close-custody” security prisons–one security level down from maximum. It could hardly have been a worse place for him to land: In a 2000 investigation of medium- and maximum-security prisons in the state, PREA commissioner Cindy Struckman-Johnson surveyed 1,788 inmates. One in ten said they had been raped, and one in five had experienced “pressured or forced sexual contact.”

Parsell didn’t know that, of course. But he did know that he was scared and lonely. So despite his brother’s warning that any sign of weakness would turn him into a victim, when an older inmate came up and started talking to him on his first day at Riverside, Parsell opened a chink in his exhausted defenses. “The guy was just very friendly,” he remembers, “and he said, You know, after count [the roll call of inmates] why don’t you come down to chow with me?” By late morning the following day, Parsell and his new friend, Ron, were in the card room with two other inmates, dipping into a plastic bag full of homemade hooch. The old Maxwell House coffee jar Parsell was drinking out of never seemed to get empty.

It took about half an hour for the Thorazine they’d spiked his drink with to hit. Suddenly Parsell couldn’t think straight. He couldn’t understand what was being said to him, and he couldn’t understand why he couldn’t understand. It was, he says, like watching a film with pieces of blank tape spliced into it: “skips, like mini-blackouts,” flashes followed by darkness.

Then he was back in one of the dormitories. Four inmates were waiting for him. It was only then that Parsell began to understand what was happening. But by the time the panic hit, it was too late. Ron shoved Parsell onto one of the bunks and another two inmates tore off his pants. Even if Parsell hadn’t been half their size, with the Thorazine he didn’t have a chance. Ron pushed himself on top of Parsell and raped him, forcing Parsell’s head into the pillow to muffle his screams as his rectum was ripped open. His cries were so desperate that they almost suffocated him trying to keep him quiet. But Ron didn’t stop. Parsell felt like he screamed for an eternity.

By that afternoon he had been raped by another two inmates and traded into sexual slavery with a coin toss. His new owner wasn’t one of his rapists, but another inmate named Slo-Drag. The rest of the prison knew by the following day. “That’s Slo-Drag’s boy,” they said as they brushed past. Ron thought it was hilarious; he could hardly stop laughing.

Parsell, now president of Stop Prisoner Rape’s board of directors, speaks widely about his experiences. He believes that his rape, like many others, could have been prevented. Both survivors and advocates are certain that a large portion of sexual assaults in prisons could be avoided if young, vulnerable inmates were not housed with violent predators, and if corrections officials made it clear to new inmates that they will quickly and conscientiously respond when violence occurs. “There has to be a climate where inmates can report effectively, yet be protected from retaliation,” says Struckman-Johnson.

But the fact is, many prison guards couldn’t care less. In a study of Midwestern prisons in 1991, Helen Eigenberg of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga found that 16 percent of officers thought inmates deserved rape if they were homosexual; 17 percent if they “dressed or talked in feminine ways”; 23 percent if they had “previously engaged in consensual sexual acts in prison”; and 24 percent if they had taken “money or cigarettes for consensual sexual acts prior to a rape.” An earlier study Eigenberg conducted in Texas echoed those findings.

Even prison administrators admit to widespread indifference. A 2004 survey of executive-level staff, commissioned by the National Institute of Corrections, concluded: “Sexual assault has been accepted in the past” and “there has been an expectation that it will occur. In some prison environments practices exist that encourage or facilitate sexual assault.”

Like other victims, Parsell is all too familiar with those “practices.” Before he was sent to Riverside, he was interviewed by a psychologist at Jackson Prison, where he was initially held. Parsell remembers the doctor calmly asking, “Have you ever been fucked?”

“No!” Parsell said.

“Well, you will be. You’re going inside the walls,” said the psychologist.

“They’ll have to kill me first,” Parsell said.

“That can be arranged,” he remembers the psychologist saying. “These guys that are doing life, they don’t care about you.They’ll slit your throat and then they’ll fuck you.”

(Charles Anderson, the then-warden at Jackson, now retired, says that he never heard of an inmate being threatened by a Jackson psychologist. “The psych units were very sensitive to the needs of prisoners,” he says. “I have never known of a prisoner to be threatened with rape by a clinician.”)

The PREA legislation promised to make certain that prison rape would no longer be treated with indifference. The act funded a nationwide study of prison rape by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and created a PREA commission to assess the data and recommend a set of standards to the Attorney General. Examples of those being considered are protocols for separating vulnerable inmates from predators and hiring independent prison ombudsmen to hear complaints of abuse. The Justice Department will issue policies, based on the commission’s recommendations, that will become law in all federal prisons. States will have to adopt the federal guidelines or lose 5 percent of their federal funding–serious money.

Unfortunately, the pace of this “Elimination Act” is glacial. The PREA commission, which has held five hearings thus far in its three years of existence, is not scheduled to issue its recommendations until July 2007. At that point, the Attorney General’s office plans to spend another year consulting with state corrections departments and industry officials before issuing its guidelines. No federal fines will be enforced until 2010 at the earliest.

Once the guidelines go into effect, enforcement is likely to be a problem. PREA authorizes no civil or criminal penalties for prison guards or administrators who preside over institutionalized rape. The law does require administrators from the nation’s three facilities with the highest incidence of rape to come before a review panel each year to explain themselves. But this public shaming is, so far, the only real threat faced by the administrators. And even the review panels and fact-finding by the BJS face an uncertain future. Funding for the research is guaranteed by PREA only until 2010. “There is just no way to anticipate either the funding stream or what data collections will look like that far down the road,” says Timothy Hughes, a BJS statistician charged with directing the prison-rape data collection. “If there was no funding stream, and the collections didn’t continue, then I would imagine that there would be no review panel, because there would be no data to review.”

But if the review process looks toothless, the legislation is weakest of all in its pocketbook. Neither the commission nor the Attorney General is allowed to recommend measures “that would impose substantial additional costs” on prison authorities. “We are restrained by the bill,” says Struckman-Johnson. “These have to be practical, inexpensive ideas that we put forth. We can’t say, Build new prisons.”

There is some funding available for states to establish “zero tolerance” programs. Through the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), Congress authorized $40 million a year through 2010 when it passed PREA. But those appropriations still have to make their way into the federal budget every year, and the money has been disappearing fast. In 2004 $37.2 million was appropriated for zero tolerance. But by 2006 the figure had dropped to less than half that. Although not yet finalized, the 2007 budget request has shrunk even further, to a paltry $2 million. It appears that zero tolerance is on its way to zero funding.

New York State was one of sixteen states to receive zero-tolerance funding in 2004 for its Department of Corrections. Its $1 million federal grant was matched by another $1 million from state and local sources. Some of this money was supposed to help pay for risk assessment, screening and separating vulnerable inmates from potential predators. But in the end, the vast majority of the $2 million has been earmarked for surveillance cameras in the Albion Correctional Facility for Women, and in New York City Department of Corrections facilities.

PREA also authorized a small amount, $5 million a year, to educate and train corrections officers across the country. By fiscal years 2005 and 2006, as the momentum for prison-rape reform continued to fizzle, the annual appropriation for training had dipped to just $1 million each year–a true drop in the bucket.

In one state, at least, there are encouraging signs that reform is possible. Last September, after California legislators heard testimony from Parsell and others, the State Assembly passed a law requiring the Department of Corrections to provide inmates with handbooks on sexual assault; adopt practices that will separate vulnerable prisoners from sexual predators; collect accurate data and make it publicly available; and bring rape-crisis services into prisons. The legislation also created a state office to “ensure confidential reporting and impartial resolution of sexual abuse complaints.” Other states have begun to take steps, says Katherine Hall-Martinez, co-executive director of Stop Prison Rape, “but no state has been as quick and aggressive as California.” Still, even the California law doesn’t include penalties for prison administrators.

In 2002, twenty-four years after he was raped at Riverside, T.J. Parsell walked into a Midtown Manhattan video store and found the sales assistants laughing at an episode of the TV series Oz, in which an inmate is raped. “The guys could have taken out a little knife and just poked me in the gut,” Parsell says. The experience led him to become an activist, and ultimately to write a book about his experiences. Fish: A Memoir of a Boy in a Man’s Prison is scheduled to be published this fall.

“Men are supposed to be resilient,” says Dr. Richard Gartner, former president of Male Survivor, an advocacy group for sexual-abuse survivors. When a man has been raped, Gartner says, “It doesn’t seem to matter how old he is, how strong he is; that’s still somewhere in the back of his mind–that he’s allowed this to happen, that he’s a sissy, that you’re feminized in some way or it means you’re gay.”

In short, society teaches men that they are not supposed to be victims, which makes it extraordinarily difficult for rape survivors to deal with what’s happened to them. For five years after his release from Riverside, Parsell was a case study, his life a downward spiral of booze, drugs and risky sex. It was only after he saw his brother nearly die from a heroin overdose, and he realized that he could be next, that he decided to get sober.

Ultimately, Parsell has fared better than most. Now 45, he did well in the dot-com boom, has a long-term partner and lives on a tree-lined street in the picturesque coastal town of Sag Harbor, New York. His study looks out over a pool that, when we spoke last fall, was sprinkled with golden leaves. Propped on the windowpane is a small, framed photograph of Parsell as a young boy with a cheeky grin.

“I’m very lucky to have transcended these experiences,” he says. “Each time I tell the story, the sting goes off it that much more. But sometimes my inner kid gets really scared, and I just look up and say, It’s OK, I’ve gotcha.” It’s a long way from the horrors of Riverside Correctional. But sometimes, Parsell says, he still wakes up at night in a cold sweat, crying. It feels like all the air has been sucked out of the room.