Uncovered Prison Rapes Show Failure of Media

As a journalist, I’ve often thought of writing about prison rape and never lifted a finger. Something held me back. I understood that this was a fringe issue, that it was nearly impossible to stir sympathy for prisoners. When I brought the subject up in social situations, people expressed complete indifference to the victimization of prisoners, as if they somehow deserved it.

And then, abruptly, the climate seemed to change. Prison rape was the focus of a long piece on the front page of the April 15 Sunday Times that emphasized the ways people seek to look the other way. Then that same week, and even more forcefully, ABC’s World News Tonight ran a three-part series on prison rape that included tearful and shamed statements by inmates describing their terror and humiliation.

There had to be some strong moral force behind this assembly of prestige media, and on April 19 I went to the 34th floor of the Empire State Building to meet her.

Joanne Mariner came out to the reception area wearing a gray sweater and ankle-length black skirt. Her blond hair was pulled back from her high cheekbones and fine features, and as she walked me back to her office I got a distinct sense of her presence–elegant, calm, svelte, cool.

Ms. Mariner works for Human Rights Watch, and the day I visited was publication day for a report on prison rape that has been several years in the making. No Escape is a humbling and horrifying book, a compendium of prisoners’ accounts of their experiences, rendered with precision and terror, and overlaid with Ms. Mariner’s Yale Law School-trained analysis of official tolerance of the abuse and the best legal means to attack the problem.

“I had the orbit of my left eye fractured, and was assaulted by another prisoner with a knife, among other altercations …. I did the only thing I could do–I found someone to ‘be with.’ I determined I’d be better off to willingly have sex with one person than I would be to face violence and rape by multiple people. The most tragic part to this is that the person I chose to ‘be with’ has AIDS …. A place like F.S.P. [Florida State Prison] could not exist, could not do such things without public support. The opposite of compassion is not hatred, it’s indifference.” (M.M., July 30, 1999.)

Joanne Mariner sat down. Her cramped office had a nice river view and a small vase of flowers on the desk.

“Did you cry during the prison interviews?” I asked.

A slight shake of the head. “I don’t think I cried. I might have felt like crying. Some of the inmates cried.”

“And then?”

“When someone breaks down, you let him collect himself. I’d say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sure this is difficult for you to describe.’”

“How long were the interviews?”

“At least an hour. Sometimes three or four. We had a lot of facts to go through. I was taking copious notes. Who, what, when and where. You know–journalism.”

“Right, journalism,” I said, with a sarcasm about my own profession that was lost on her.

Human Rights Watch took up the issue five years ago, and tentatively. The international monitoring group had just done a study on custodial abuse of women prisoners, and it was suggested that it look into the abuse of men. Gara LaMarche, then associate director of Human Rights Watch, was dubious about its status as a human-rights question.

“This is part of the motif of every cop show on television,” he said. “It’s deeply ingrained in the culture, and we’re all inured to it. There’s contempt for prisoners, and it’s also a hugely uncomfortable topic for men to think about.”

Mr. LaMarche went with Joanne Mariner to visit the leading activist on the issue. They entered a cluttered Morningside Heights apartment and were greeted by a small man who seemed gay, and who wore a belt buckle proclaiming himself a “PUNK,” but who had pornographic female pinups on the wall.

Stephen Donaldson was then 49 and dying of AIDS, without regrets. He’d led a wild life. Born Robert Martin Jr., he had been discharged from the Navy for homosexual activity, and in time had become a bisexual, Quaker, poet, Hindu, Buddhist, punk rocker, non-racist skinhead and gay-rights activist.

In the early 70′s, Mr. Donaldson was arrested in Washington, D.C., during a pray-in against the bombing of Cambodia. He was mouthy and a little out of control, and his jailers meant to teach him a lesson. They put him in a ward where he was repeatedly raped.

“Donny was the first prisoner-rape survivor I know of who went public, and he did it immediately,” said Tom Cahill, who was himself raped in jail.

Mr. Cahill and Mr. Donaldson ran an organization called Stop Prisoner Rape. This in spite of the fact that Stephen Donaldson himself became a prison rapist during one stay in prison. “Rape of any kind is torture and it’s crazy-making,” Mr. Cahill said. “Donny and I and a lot of others are examples of how crazy-making it is. It often creates multiple personalities in the survivor.”

They did not invent the antirape organization. Its founder was a black Midwesterner named Russell D. Smith, who had been sexually victimized beginning as a child in reform school. But after a few years as an advocate, Russell Smith simply disappeared. Mr. Cahill took over his files.

“We suspect he’s long dead,” Mr. Cahill said. “But we’ve been searching for him for years.”

On the surface it seems odd that Joanne Mariner, a formal woman who grew up riding ponies in Topanga Canyon and who has lived in Paris, Nairobi and New Haven, would suddenly be the heir to such a cause. But get to know her a little, and it makes perfect sense. She is a 38-year-old loner who doesn’t own a television, lives in Little Italy, and seems more comfortable with Mexican peasants and brutalized prisoners than with her fellow Barnard alumnae.

“I call her an active volcano masquerading as an iceberg,” said her friend, the filmmaker Hampton Fancher. “She has a 100-and-forever I.Q. and she wears high heels, but she’s a pirate, she doesn’t see fences or laws.”

Ms. Mariner has borrowed a motorcycle to do interviews in the mountains of Colombia and once smuggled a sick kitten through Narita airport in Japan inside her clothes because she didn’t want to leave it on the street in Hong Kong. (“She got it drunk first,” Mr. Fancher said.)

“My former boyfriend once said she’s aggressively independent,” said Julie Hilden, an author. “She travels alone in countries where it’s very risky for women and shows a complete disregard for her own personal safety when there’s a moral question at stake. She’s glamorous, but never intentionally glamorous. You might think of her as a 2001 version of Martha Gellhorn.”

Ms. Mariner began by putting notices in three prison journals, seeking information about prison rape. Her language was gender-neutral, but she included her name.

“I had worried that me being a woman would make it more difficult. But Donny Donaldson said, ‘No, you should either be a woman or a gay man,’” she said. “It was crucial. I think that when you have that whole façade of being a man, you can’t show weakness to other men.”

The response was overwhelming. Over three years, she got more than 1,000 letters, a graphic and wrenching record of terrible human suffering.

L.T., Texas: “I told [a guard] what my cellie wanted me to do … that my life was in danger. He said for me to return to my cell and stand up and fight, because this was prison …. My cellie’s homeboy that said he would protect me he came over to my cell when they ran rec. My cellie was gone. He ask me what happen and what was I crying for. He ask me how I was going to pay him. I told him when I went to the store I would pay him. But he said I want to fuck. I told him that I didnt do that …. He kept saying he aint gonna take long. So he had me have anal sex with him. After that, my cellie came back from rec, he found out what his homeboy did and told me he wanted to do the same ….”

Joanne Mariner had to work hard just to write back in a timely fashion.

“At times it felt coldly scientific. I’d say, ‘Thank you for sharing your account of your experiences.’ But then I’d ask a lot of questions.”

Then came field work. She chose nearly 30 of the more dramatic cases and drove from prison to prison in California and Texas to interview these men. Usually they were face to face, sometimes separated by glass. “Several said, ‘You’re the only person I’ve told this to.’ Part of the experience they endured is that no one had listened.”

Ms. Mariner stayed cool. She put an icy hand to the details, and documented the repercussions of reporting rape: the refusal of authorities to do anything, the return of a prisoner to the circumstances and men who victimized him and who now knew that they had been reported. She constructed a legal argument for why the hundreds of thousands of prison rapes represent a form of official penalty.

But these arguments are animated at all times by the verbatim statements she collected. She preserved the many references to blacks’ exploitation of white inmates; she made a point not to change spelling or grammar. She highlighted prison idiom, of “turning out” a prisoner or “making him ride.”

“I wanted to convey their humanity,” she said. “If I could, I would have had it so you could see their scribble.”

Joanne Mariner first showed her report to a Human Rights Watch media director, Minky Worden, a year ago. Ms. Worden had nightmares for a week, before throwing herself into it.

“I said, ‘This is something that deserves attention,’” she said. “But a lot of people wrinkled their noses and made squeamish noises about the report. Men especially. A lot of people said, ‘I’d like to do it, but this is not news.’”

This is the most perplexing thing about Ms. Mariner’s report, which is called No Escape: Male Rape in U.S. Prisons, and dedicated to Stephen Donaldson and former Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun. Everyone knows this already. Why is it news? Indeed, it is to the shame of journalists like myself that none of us were motivated to lift a finger about a horror that we knew was going on right around us. Think of all the men’s magazines that have done nothing.

“They don’t let journalists into some prisons,” Ms. Mariner said.

That’s a lousy excuse. Journalists could have easily done what Ms. Mariner did; few have gone near prison rape (with some notable exceptions, chiefly Loretta Tofani at The Washington Post in the 1980′s). The issue simply did not matter. The United States has one of the highest rates of imprisonment in the world, and our public discourse demonizes prisoners, reasoning that they sign up for any victimization they experience by doing the crime in the first place. It takes people outside the mainstream to alter the thinking–the fiercely focused Ms. Mariner, backed by Human Rights Watch, an organization that the media have increasingly (and sometimes docilely) turned to to tell them what is an atrocity.

It seems significant that women played such an important role in bringing this issue to the fore. Men may be too deeply role-bound, and ashamed, to acknowledge it.

Then, too, women are experienced in dealing with victimhood. A generation ago, female rape was trivialized and the victims subjected to further abuse and indifference. It took waves of angry activists, followed by coldly angry documenters and analysts, to force the issue. Now no one trivializes the question, and some women have moved on to other issues. If you’re a progressivist, you say, cheerily, that this is how society moves, one issue at a time, incrementally. I want to wait and see.

I pointed at the pretty bouquet of flowers on Joanne Mariner’s desk. “Publication day?” I said.

“No.” Her 38th birthday was two days before; a friend had sent them.

There wasn’t too much fuss over publication. Ms. Mariner’s mother had called from California to congratulate her on an article about the work in a San Francisco paper.

“And your dad?”

Ms. Mariner hadn’t heard from him. “I should send him a copy,” she said, without resolve. Her father, who teaches business, is not really the report’s audience, she said.