‘I’m Still Fighting’ : He suffered the devastation of a jailhouse gang rape. Now, Stephen Donaldson resolves to stop a crime that others would rather keep quiet.
He was only trying to protest the Vietnam War and follow a creed of nonviolent resistance. But after he was gang-raped 50 times in the Washington, D.C., jail, Stephen Donaldson started a war of his own.
It all began on a hot August afternoon in 1973, when he was arrested at a White House pray-in. For reasons of conscience, the Quaker activist refused to post $10 bail and was placed in a cell with other first-time offenders.
Then, without warning, he was sent to a wing with hardened criminals.
Told that some inmates wanted to meet him, Donaldson went to their cell. Within seconds, the men beat him savagely, tore off his clothes and repeatedly assaulted him. He managed to escape two days later, and only after his attackers whispered that a guard was coming down the hall.
Like thousands before him, Donaldson was physically and emotionally traumatized by prison rape. It would take him years to recover. Unlike most victims, however, he was determined to speak out against a crime that has reached epidemic proportions in some U.S. prisons--and is rarely discussed.
“I couldn’t pretend it never happened,” he says. “Some prison officials figure people will keep quiet, and I’m convinced the D.C. jail set me up, to teach me a political lesson. But they miscalculated with me. I was just beginning to fight back, and I’m still fighting.”
Today, Donaldson is president of Stop Prison Rape, the only national advocacy group focused solely on the problem. He debates the issue in public forums and helped draft a friend of the court brief in Farmer vs. Brennan, a watershed prison rape case awaiting a Supreme Court decision.
Next week, he’s scheduled to testify in a hearing on prison rape before the Massachusetts Legislature, and he’ll deliver a shocking estimate: Based on several decades of studies, Donaldson says, there are more than a quarter-million sexual assaults on inmates each year in American correctional facilities.
Across the nation, a handful of prosecutors, attorneys, psychologists, religious leaders and politicians are trying to root out a cancer that is deeply ingrained in the criminal justice system, yet traditionally rouses little concern. Indeed, at a time when anger over crime is escalating, many find it hard to feel compassion for men who are abused behind bars.
Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican and member of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, says society pays a heavy price for such attitudes: “We ignore this prison-rape problem at our peril, because there is a great potential for these victims to commit worse crimes when they get out of jail. For anyone who cares about safety, it’s a matter of common sense as well as compassion.”
Specter speaks from experience; he was district attorney of Philadelphia in 1968 when a pioneering study was done of prison rape in that city’s jail system. The conclusions were devastating: Nearly 1,000 men were raped each year in custody, and there were no programs to control the violence.
Since then, studies in other states have found similar horrors, as well as evidence that many inmates are coerced into long-term sexual “coupling” with stronger prisoners simply to ward off the possibility of repeated gang rapes.
But there has been little national response. Meanwhile, AIDS is spreading rapidly in prisons and jails. In 1989, there were 14.65 AIDS cases per 100,000 in the general population, but the rate for state and federal prisons was 202 cases per 100,000, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Only Vermont and Mississippi provide condoms to inmates who request them, as do jails in Philadelphia, San Francisco and New York City. Nationwide, there are an estimated 50,000 prisoners infected with HIV and the numbers are growing each year, says Nancy Mahon, director of the New York-based AIDS in Prison Project. There are few HIV counseling programs for those in custody.
“This is a powder keg waiting to explode,” she says. “As we put more people in jail, you have to wonder about the medical consequences, and AIDS is one of them. If you put a kid in jail for petty theft and then he gets raped, there’s a whole downward cycle for him. And HIV could be the final insult.”
It’s a nightmare without end for victims, and every so often a gruesome prison rape story finds its way into the media. Then it’s forgotten.
Several days after his trauma, Donaldson held a news conference in Washington and later appeared on talk shows. He was the first American to personally describe such sexual terror, and he hoped reforms would follow. By year’s end, however, his story had faded from view.
“The public indifference on this is staggering,” Donaldson says. “And it’s harder for someone like me, because the trauma continues to haunt you. You can be tormented by this. So often, there’s just nowhere to turn.”
Once a newspaper journalist, Donaldson’s life changed radically after 1973. He now spends much of his time corresponding with inmates across the country and pestering public officials to focus on the issue.
It’s a thankless task: Stop Prison Rape has little funding and only several hundred members nationwide. Donaldson, 47, fights to keep it afloat.
A complex and thoughtful man, he speaks bitterly about the past but never lapses into self-pity. His black jeans, long sideburns and fatigue jackets set him apart from the pin-striped world he once seemed destined to enter, and the harsh, unforgiving stories he tells distance him even more.
Donaldson can be a jarring character at first glance. Visitors gape at his Stop Prison Rape baseball cap and he raises eyebrows with a belt buckle reading “Punk.” The word is more than a referral to his taste in rock music. It’s also prison slang for the passive sexual role he was forced into behind bars.
Yet shock value is only part of his persona. Once Donaldson starts talking about rape, there’s no doubting his gravitas.
“This guy knocked me off my feet,” says Deborah Denno, a Fordham University law professor, who invited Donaldson to address her seminar on rape. “He was very smart and there was a depth of human emotion and feeling to what he said. . . . His message is important.”
Born in Norfolk, Va., to a military family, Donaldson’s given name was Robert Martin. He was high school valedictorian and attended Columbia University. Friends and family members recall him as a smart, outgoing person who seemed to have a golden future as a reporter, a lawyer or just about anything else he wanted to be.
“He had tremendous promise. He thought he might conquer the world, but after what happened I don’t think he looks at the world that way,” says his stepmother, Brigitta Martin. “It altered his life forever. He’s not the same driven person I used to know.”
Donaldson describes himself as a survivor, but he’s been wrestling with the demons of self-confidence and his own sexuality for nearly 21 years, largely as the result of his prison experience. Personal justice has also proved elusive: Angered that prosecutors declined to investigate corrections officers for what he says was their role in his rape, he refused to cooperate with a grand jury and the D.C. jail case was dropped.
In subsequent years, Donaldson’s personal and professional life spun out of control. He was briefly homeless, struggled to establish a literary career and was arrested twice for drug possession. Although both charges were dropped, he was jailed in North Carolina and Virginia facilities and, he says, again raped.
As a youth, Donaldson thought himself bisexual. But the D.C. assaults shattered his self-image. He changed his name, tried to lose himself in the world of punk rock music and sought relief in Far Eastern spiritualism.
The cracking point for the Navy veteran came in 1980, when he demanded treatment for a badly cut hand at the Veterans Hospital in the Bronx and was told to come back later. Enraged, he pulled a handgun and shot out the window in a hospital door. He served four years in federal prison, where Donaldson says he was yet again assaulted.
Unlike most parolees, Donaldson got counseling after his release and learned to deal with rape trauma survivors syndrome. He’s since been trained as a rape counselor and has produced a pioneering set of audio tapes to help prisoners cope with the experience. A New York resident, he’s working on an encyclopedia of homosexuality and is a well-known punk rock journalist.
“You might wonder, how did a pacifist like me, a Quaker, go from nonviolent resistance to being a gunman?” he asks. “And the answer is very simple. What happened to me during and after the D.C. jail is an old story.”
And as American as apple pie. Take a gullible kid, put him through the hell of prison rape, then set him loose on the streets. Watch the rage build, until he explodes in violence and returns to jail. The cycle is endless.
In the United States, it goes back at least 170 years. In 1824, the Rev. Louis Dwight, a New England prison reformer, toured many jails and lamented a barbaric culture where stronger, older prisoners repeatedly raped younger inmates, turning them into sexual slaves.
“Since October, 1824, I have visited most of the prisons on two routes, between Massachusetts and Georgia, and (in) the New England States and New York,” Dwight wrote. “And I have found melancholy testimony to establish one general fact . . . that boys are prostituted to the lust of old convicts. Nature and humanity cry aloud for redemption from this dreadful degradation.”
It’s gotten worse.
Although there are no statistics documenting the prevalence, scores of court cases brought by victims and a handful of studies suggest that sexual attacks behind bars are widespread. Yet they are rarely reported because of a code of silence that threatens informers with death.
Meanwhile, corrections officials are reluctant to probe such behavior because it suggests that they’ve lost control of their institutions. As a result, the overwhelming number of cases rarely make it to court.
One typical administrative response is to place victims in protective custody, away from other convicts. But the solitude drives many men mad, and there have been documented cases of victims raped in seclusion. For the most part, thousands of vulnerable prisoners continue to be placed in cells or large holding areas with seasoned sexual offenders.
In the 1968 Philadelphia study, only 3% of the estimated 1,000 yearly attacks were reported to officials. In 1982, researchers at a California prison found that 14% of inmates had been assaulted. Yet the real number was thought to be higher, because many men were reluctant to admit being raped. A New York study found that 28% of prisoners had been sexually attacked.
The only current study of jailhouse rape is being conducted in the Nebraska prison system by Cindy Struckman-Johnson, a professor at the University of South Dakota. Her preliminary data, based on confidential questionnaires, confirms the 14% sexual assault rate found in California.
“Some of the answers we get are truly heartbreaking,” Johnson reports. “Young prisoners say they either fight off a guy, or they’re destroyed.”
In Philadelphia, one witness described a young man’s gang rape:
“They had the kid on the floor. About 12 fellows took turns with him. This went on for two hours. . . . He lay there for about 20 minutes and (one) came over and pulled his pants down and raped him again. When he got done, (another) did it again, and about four or five others got on him.”
Why does it happen?
Many criminologists believe prison rape mirrors crime in the outside world. It’s a symbol of power for the attacker, a vehicle for aggression. Inmates battle for dominance in the racially tense, overcrowded worlds of most jails and prisons, and, for many, rape is synonymous with strength.
“There aren’t many weapons in a prison, and so the penis becomes a weapon of control,” says Wayne Wooden, coordinator of the Criminal Justice and Corrections program at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. “It’s how prisoners assert themselves and show others that they’re unassailable.”
Wooden, who co-authored the 1982 study of sexual abuse in a California prison, adds that many men are targeted for attack the minute they enter confinement. Typical victims are young, slightly built males without knowledge of prison culture or street-fighting techniques. Although homosexuals are obvious targets, most victims are heterosexual.
Once behind bars, predators compete to see who will be the first to attack them--or “turn them out,” in prison parlance. After a man is assaulted, word spreads rapidly through the institution and he’s identified as a punk. His body belongs to someone else as long as he is in custody.
“Few female rape victims must repay their rapist for the violence he inflicted upon them by devoting their existence to servicing his every need,” write Louisiana prison inmates Wilbert Rideau and Ron Wikberg in their book, “Life Sentences.”
“But rape victims in the world of prison must.”
The immediate consequences of jailhouse rape are devastating. Many victims are pressured into believing they have been turned into women, that their masculinity is gone. They frequently go into shock and some attempt suicide.
“Your biggest problem is that few prisoners who are raped get prompt psychological counseling,” says Maud Easter, who chairs the New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “Someone who has experienced this needs counseling immediately . They’re in pain, and they’ve got nowhere to turn.”
That’s how Donaldson felt after his gang rape: stunned, bloodied and utterly alone. He relives these memories in the wrenching letters sent to him by prisoners across the nation.
Many of these inmates committed serious crimes, while others protest their innocence. None expected that sexual trauma would be part of their punishment.
Writes “Michael,” from an Arizona prison:
In October, 1974, I was 18 years old, youthfully dumb and full of fun. Charged with four counts of petty forgery, I landed in the Pima Co. jail in Tucson, Arizona. I was brutally beaten, savagely and repeatedly raped.
For LeShawn Cummings, at the state prison in Tehachapi, Calif., the trauma is heightened by the belief that authorities don’t believe him:
Between 10-18-93 and 11-3-93, I was sodomized and forced to commit oral copulation against my will in my cell. My cellmate would threaten to beat me up if I did not have sex with him. I told the correctional officers but they did not believe me and sent me back to the cell to endure more pain.
Another Arizona convict writes that, at 23, he was gang-raped. After a hospital stay, officials put him in protective custody:
It’s been 18 months now. I don’t talk to no prisoners at all to this day. I don’t have no money. Nothing. No TV or stereo. I sit in my cell and cry a lot. I’ve cut my wrists three times. The state didn’t do anything. *
That’s a common complaint. Yet many correctional officials say the problem is either overblown or impossible to document. They suggest that U.S. jails and prisons do a much better job controlling rape than is generally believed.
Hardy Rauch, an officer with the American Corrections Assn., argues that sexual assaults are more prevalent in society than in prisons. It would be impossible to guarantee complete security, he says, because that would mean hiring a guard for each of the nation’s 1.2 million inmates.
The ACA, an accrediting organization that includes prisons and jails in all 50 states, is aware of the issue, Rauch says, but adds: “It’s not considered to be a nationwide problem. And I’d ask you: Is a warden more culpable when someone is attacked in prison than the mayor of Los Angeles is if a policeman isn’t watching your house when it’s robbed?”
Other officials say rape isn’t a problem in their institutions. At Rikers Island in New York, the nation’s largest municipal jail complex, spokesman Tom Antenen says sexual assaults are few. At the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which houses 84,000 prisoners in 75 facilities, spokesman Dan Dunne suggests that rape is “relatively low.” Neither offers statistics.
The California Department of Corrections does not keep specific records of sexual assaults in its 28 prisons. Records were logged from 1970 to 1988, however, and they ranged from a low of four in 1973 to a high of 64 in 1987. Currently, there are 121,800 inmates in the system, the nation’s largest.
In Los Angeles, the sprawling county jail system reported 52 sexual assaults last year, says Jake Katz, custody management specialist with the Sheriff’s Department. The system holds a daily average of 21,000 inmates.
On rare occasions, prosecutors file charges against prison rapists. But even when victims win, the victory is a Pyrrhic one. Michael Wheat, an assistant U.S. attorney in San Diego, believes that he is the first federal prosecutor to successfully bring charges against one prisoner accused of raping another.
In the 1993 case, inmate Gary Gonzaga told a U.S. District Court that he had been attacked by Frederick Garcia-Cruz while both were in custody at the Metropolitan Correctional Center. The defendant eventually pleaded guilty to aggravated assault, adding five years to his sentence.
“I was pleased with the outcome, but it’s only a drop in the bucket,” says Wheat, who had to persuade Gonzaga to participate in the case. “You’re dealing with inmates, and juries aren’t likely to find either side sympathetic.
“When a play is set in hell, you can’t cast it with angels.”
Most inmates never get as far as a courtroom, and protection comes at a price. Donaldson, like thousands of other prisoners, took on the role of a punk and serviced stronger men to avoid further gang rapes. While corrections officials usually forbid any sexual activity, many passively permit such relationships because they promote stability in their institutions.
Looking back, Donaldson says life as a punk deepened his self-awareness. He believes that he’s become more sensitive to the brutalization of women, and suggests that some prison relationships made him feel wanted and loved.
The war still rages in his head.
It erupts when he addresses a recent lunch seminar at New York University Law School. Bearing an armful of Stop Prison Rape literature, he sits quietly at the head of a table and watches while students munch cookies.
Then Donaldson grabs their attention. He plays the beginning of a cassette he produced, “An Ounce of Prevention,” which dramatizes a prison rape: 40 seconds of terror, pleading, muffled screams and sobs.
The audience looks shaken.
“If all of you were male, that could be you as a victim,” he tells the crowd, his eyes sweeping the room. “You’d be meat on the table.”
For the next hour, there’s silence as Donaldson tells his story and criticizes many groups--feminists, gays, victims’ rights organizers, politicians, judges, attorneys and the general public--for what he calls a cruel indifference to the trauma of men in U.S. prisons and jails.
There’s applause, but then a hostile questioner shatters the mood.
“Isn’t fear of rape a good deterrent to crime?” the student asks. “And aren’t prisons supposed to be terrible places? When you talk about using taxpayers’ money for these programs . . . I couldn’t justify that.”
Donaldson fixes the questioner with a hard, penetrating stare.
“Have you been in prison?” he asks. “Do you know anyone in prison?”
The student shakes his head.
“Then how can you say such a thing?” Donaldson demands with a look of pain and incredulity.
“How could you possibly understand?”