Rape in the American prison

Among prisoners and their keepers, Hulin’s experience was hardly notable. It was widely known that younger, smaller inmates were at constant risk of sexual assault. Haywood Patterson, one of the Scottsboro Boys, wrote that when he got to Alabama’s Atmore Prison in 1937, he found that young men were beaten into submission and eventually “sold themselves around on the weekends just like whore women of the streets.” In 1980, Louisiana prison-newspaper editor Wilbert Rideau won national journalism accolades for an essay called “The Sexual Jungle,” in which he wrote that “rape in prison is rarely a sexual act, but one of violence, politics, and an acting out of power roles.” Being raped, or “turned out,” he explained, redefines the male victim “as a ‘female’ in this perverse subculture, and he must assume that role as the ‘property’ of his conqueror or whoever claimed him and arranged his emasculation. He becomes a slave in the fullest sense of the term.”

Reports about prison rape by advocacy groups led to occasional efforts by federal lawmakers to address the problem. None of those initiatives gained any wide support until 2001, when Human Rights Watch released “No Escape: Male Rape in U.S. Prisons,” which focused less on perpetrators than on failures by correctional staff and policies to prevent rape. The report included harrowing first-person accounts. “The opposite of compassion is not hatred,” wrote one Florida prisoner, describing the violence he’d endured. “It’s indifference.” The revelations brought together liberal human rights activists, government-distrustful libertarians, and Christian conservatives. PREA was passed unanimously.

The lawmakers and advocates who pushed the law to passage hoped it would create standards to protect particular classes of prisoners. Recent news reports on PREA have focused almost exclusively on the plight of transgender and gay inmates, but originally the spotlight was on a much larger population: the young and inexperienced. “There was an assumption from the beginning of PREA that we wanted to protect the vulnerable,” says Cindy Struckman-Johnson, a University of South Dakota psychologist. “Age was a given. It’s the number one vulnerability.”