Torture in the American Gulag by Tom Cahill
Sigmund Freud and the Wright brothers were contemporaries at the turn-of-the-century. In the field of aeronautics, we have placed men on the moon and brought them back alive three decades ago. Yet in the field of psychology, we’ve hardly scratched the surface in understanding the human mind. Just one example of misplaced values is the way the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world treats its prisoners.
One of the most unique gardens in the world is located in northern California and though few people visit, the garden is well tended.
Scattered among the flowers and bushes are toys—a stuffed unicorn here, a tiny windmill there, a plastic creature with a trace of a smile stands propped among some early Spring daffodils. And painted on the rocks all about the garden are the names, ages and hometowns of children and the dates they were kidnapped, raped, and/or murdered.
On one large, rock is clearly printed in white paint, “For a brief time ‘an angel rested here.’ Polly Hannah Klaas.”
This hallowed ground is where the body of the pretty, forever-12-year-old was found in 1993 and is now called “Polly’s Garden and The Memorial for All Children.”
On a recent visit, I sat awhile on one of the benches, overwhelmed with sadness, mental portraits of my own grandchildren, and total incredulity. I searched for an answer to how a man, who might have been a father himself, could kidnap a child out of the warmth and safety of her own home, then rape and murder her.
I also sought an answer to why the United States—with its immense criminal justice system; all its great universities and think tanks; and its legions of psychiatrists, psychologists, sociologists, criminologists and spiritual leaders—doesn’t seem to care enough about why people like Richard Allen Davis commit heinous crimes such as the murder of young Polly Klaas.
A freshly painted rock in Polly’s Garden mocks our feeble efforts to prevent such horror; “Clarissa Ernst. Age 8. Another child victim. Her body found near Shasta Lake in California, Mar. 26, 1999.”
There are clues to the mind-set of killers like Davis. But a public blinded by vengeance and swayed by self-serving politicians discounts these clues as “excuses.” For decades the public has voted for ever harsher punishment with lessening efforts toward prevention—as if knowing why people torture others is insignificant. It is crucially important for us to understand that rape is torture—the infliction of severe physical and/or emotional pain as punishment and/or coercion.
In his trial, it was passed over lightly that Richard Allen Davis was himself sexually tortured earlier in life. Speaking from personal experience and fifteen years of research, I suggest that this is a very important clue to why Davis sexually-tortured and killed a 12-year-old girl.
Rape Trauma Syndrome Rape is crazy-making. It may be the ultimate humiliation, with very serious and long-lasting psychic damage to the victim as well as to close loved ones who are secondary victims. Rape of women and the sexual abuse of children in our society are well known and a national scandal. But there is another form of rape in our society that receives virtually no attention by our media, our politicians, our public at large. The eerie absence of social consciousness on this issue has a sinister match in the enormity of the social problem created by it. I am speaking of the rape of male prisoners and the very dangerous and expensive repercussions for all society that result from this practice.
Many prison rape survivors become rapists themselves in a demented attempt to regain what they think of as their “lost manhood.” If upon release, these prisoner rapists and survivors-turned-rapists continue this particular cycle of violence, might they not victimize women as easier and preferred prey? If so, we may have identified a major root cause for the escalating rape rate of women in free society. Survivors are often walking, breathing time bombs.
Some prison rape victims retaliate by murdering their rapists, receiving added years to their sentence. Another outcome of prison rape is suicide. Researchers have found that suicide is the leading cause of death behind bars. Sexual harassment is the leading cause of prisoner suicide. Yet another consequence is disease. Hepatitis-C and AIDS spread by prisoner rape can be a death sentence. An Ohio man contracted AIDS from rape in jail and infected his wife who bore two children who in turn tested HIV positive (Associated Press, Jan. 6, 1988).
Severe psychosis is the most common outcome of prisoner rape. Sexual assault can often break a prisoner’s spirit without even breaking his skin, resulting in shame, rage and all the actions related to these emotions. With some people, just the threat of sexual assault can induce rape trauma syndrome which is similar to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Researchers have found that it takes an average of ten years for a woman to heal from rape and that many male rape survivors never heal because of pressures placed on men that are only beginning to be understood. The rape of male prisoners is especially destructive in that they are usually gang-raped.
In the advanced stages of rape trauma syndrome, a survivor’s mood often swings between deep depression and rage. Prisoner rape may be the quickest, most cost-effective way of producing a sociopath or, in Richard Allen Davis’s case, a psychopath. The fact, according to researchers, that most men on death row were sexually abused earlier in life should come as no surprise. Indeed, it is a clue that we in free society ignore at our peril.
Dr. James Gilligan, psychiatrist and director of the Center for the Study of Violence at Harvard Medical School, has discovered that shame is the “deadly emotion.” “It works to deaden the feelings of being human…Shame a petty criminal in prison and you may get a serial murderer after his term has been served.” (Violence; Our Deadly Epidemic And Its Causes, Dr. James Gilligan, 1996).
A Monstrous Crime While I was on a speaking tour in Texas for Amnesty International in February, 1999, I met the parents of a prisoner who confirmed my suspicion that John William King was most probably sexually assaulted in prison a few years earlier. King, you may recall, was the young, white man recently convicted and sentenced to be executed for dragging to death a black man last year in Jasper, Texas. This prisoner, once confined with King, told his parents that King was probably gang-raped by members of the Crips, a nationwide gang of blacks. King was just an average, Texas, good ole boy, redneck racist—not a particularly mean one—when he first arrived in prison, the prisoner reported. But soon afterward, King was “turned out” (raped) and turned vicious.
One of King’s court-appointed attorneys, Brack Jones, was quoted by The Dallas Morning News, Feb. 19, 1999, as having said, “Something…obviously happened to him (King) in the penitentiary.” In news accounts, including that of Time for March 8, 1999, words like “attacked,” and “assaulted*” were used to describe what may have happened to King at the Beto 1 Prison Unit in Texas several years ago. But no account that I read or heard until my trip to Texas in February ever mentioned sexual assault which is a big step up the ladder of violence.
The prisoner in Texas refuses to go public with his information for fear of reprisal by prisoners and/or guards. But any psychoanalyst knowledgeable about rape trauma syndrome or torture syndrome should be able to verify the prisoner’s claim by examining King. If the claim is indeed true, I charge that voters in general, and the criminal justice system in particular, share some responsibility for the brutal torture-murder of James Byrd Jr., as well as the sexual torture of John William King. As it is, King gets the death penalty while the criminal justice system that made him a killer is never even indicted.
The major media is negligent for not having dug a lot deeper into King’s motivation. Here we have two stories of sexual misconduct, “Monicagate” and the issue of prisoner rape. Both are national scandals. The more titillating and glamorous story gets overplayed by the media. Guess which one has been underplayed since the first recorded prisoner rape in the US in 1826?
“…my country has betrayed me.”
In 1968, I was editor of the alternative newspaper Inferno, in San Antonio, Texas. I was arrested for civil disobedience and placed in a crowded cell with thirty prisoners, most of them confined for violent crimes. Almost half of them were black and the other half Hispanic. There were three whites, two of whom cowered in the back of the cell. The remaining white became ringleader of the action. The prisoners had all been moved there just hours before me and the two rival factions had been building up steam to go at each other. In the parlance of prison-speak, this was known as a “gorilla cage,” a cell specially arranged for a “turning out party” in which the prisoners would bend some unfortunate candidate like a rubber tire. Later, I learned the prisoners had been told by a guard that I was a child molester and they’d get an extra ration of Jello if they “took care of me.” I was placed into this racial tinderbox, a clean-cut, well-dressed, white man, obviously ignorant of life behind bars. I wore glasses and spoke funny, too.
After the attack, I learned from my cellies how it had all been orchestrated. My FBI files (available via the Freedom of Information Act) indicate the Bureau may have set me up to be “neutralized” this way because of my anti-Vietnam war activities. What better way to deal with a political troublemaker than rape in prison? The victim is usually silenced by his or her own trauma and shame.
Since finding these things out, I’ve never had ill feelings for my rapists—but I still haven’t forgiven my country. I’m working on it though because I understand the spiritual necessity and healing power of forgiveness. Whether the FBI was involved or not, my country set up the conditions for my rape and torture. I cared enough about this country and its actions to be arrested for civil disobedience–and I was repaid in a terrible currency.
I May Be Crazy but I’m Not Insane As a prison rape survivor, I’m absolutely certain I would not be reporting on prisoner rape if not for the feminist movement that brought the subject of rape out of the closet. I’m sure I’d be in a mental hospital or, more likely, prison, since that’s where many emotionally disturbed people seem to end up these days. Rape is a human issue. This is something I’ve tried to communicate to feminists for more than a decade, but, for the most part, their attitude seems to be possessive, that rape is a woman’s issue. The shocking truth may be that far more men than women are raped in America each day—period.
In 1984, I fasted for two months to bring media attention to the issue of prisoner rape and obviously to my own pain. The San Francisco Chronicle interviewed me at length in my camper parked outside the gates of San Quentin.
I wanted badly for the story of prisoner rape to appear in a major national newspaper. After waiting two weeks, I figured it wasn’t going to be printed, so I went to the Chronicle to find out why. Hoping for the best but expecting a brush-off, I brought a hammer along. I planned, if necessary, to smash a computer monitor because (1) I wanted to finish my fast, one way or other, in jail to make it that much more difficult for society to continue to ignore this barbarism. And (2), if I survived, I wanted to be able to afford to make restitution if I chose to.
Immediately after identifying myself on the phone in the lobby, the reporter upstairs told me he knew about me and rudely hung up. I selected one of the plate glass doors to make my statement. First I went outside, assumed the lotus position and among other things, I asked the door for forgiveness. I then rose with difficulty, put the hammer through the door, and resumed the lotus position, waiting for the police
As you can tell by now, I am crazy. The Veteran’s Administration agrees and in 1987 awarded me a 100 percent, non-service-connected disability pension for PTSD. I am crazy. I suffer from depression, rages, flashbacks, paranoia, multiple personalities, and sexual dysfunction, to name some of my symptoms of rape trauma syndrome. But I’m not insane. I know the difference between right and wrong and I’m no danger to myself or others. This is more than I can say for many of those who make the law, interpret the law, and enforce the law.
For me to finish my own healing process, I need this barbarism to end, or to at least be greatly minimized. As president of SPR, Inc., every day I hear the screams for help or the weeping pain of new victims and old survivors.
The War on Drugs and Prisoner Rape as a ‘Management Tool’ I submit that the war on drugs never, ever had anything to do with public health. From its beginning in 1968, it was Richard Nixon’s scheme to politically neutralize young men of color and the predominately white counterculture of which I am a long-time member. And like most wars, it’s been about political and economic expedience. The war on drugs is a civil war against America’s poor. As in any war, in the name of national security, civil rights are suspended and atrocities are committed. And since more than half of the men, women and children locked-up in America are confined for drug-related crimes (a majority of them non-violent and victimless crimes), they should be more correctly called “political prisoners.” This is why I use the word gulag, the old Soviet term for a prison system filled with political prisoners.
Reagan greatly escalated Nixon’s war on drugs, doubling the prison population, thus making the American gulag the biggest in the world. Bush doubled it again, and, for over a decade, the US has had more prisoners per capita than any other country in the world. California provides a telling example: even though new prison spending has outstripped new colleges by 19 to 1, the state predicts that all of its prisons will be filled to capacity by April of 2001.
America is feeding its voracious prison/industrial complex with this spurious War On Drugs. Now, in 1999, according to Amnesty International, conditions in America’s correctional institutions have gotten so bad that AI launched its “Rights for All Campaign,” focusing on human rights violations in the US criminal justice system.
The appalling conditions behind bars are scarcely conceivable in free society. Statistics do not provide a clear picture of these conditions, but they can begin to establish a useful perspective. For instance: In 1995, each day, 83,000 adult male prisoners were raped in US correctional institutions, according to a report by Stephen Donaldson, of SPR. Donaldson’s statistics have yet to be challenged by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In fact Donaldson’s statistics may be so conservative, he may be off by half, according to Dr. Warren Farrell in The Myth of Male Power. And according to Carl Weiss and David Friar in their book Terror In The Prisons, published way back in 1974, “More men than women are raped every year in America. They are raped in prison.”
Not only prison officials, but the entire criminal justice system has a vested interest in keeping this barbarism covered-up. Why? Because they use prisoner rape as what is called a “management tool.”
Police officers and prosecuting attorneys use the threat of prisoner rape to coerce suspects into plea bargaining. Ex-prisoners who know what to expect behind bars are especially vulnerable to these threats. Police–and guards–use the threat of prisoner rape to coerce suspects and prisoners into becoming informers.
I believe the criminal justice system has become a vast criminal conspiracy that preys mostly on the poor while extorting money out of middleclass taxpayers through the use of misinformation such as all the rhetoric about drugs.
Politics and Prison Rape Who is being raped behind bars? It’s certainly not the big drug lords or the vicious thugs in for murder and assault. It’s mostly the young, non-violent, first-offenders confined for a little too much pot and too poor to buy their freedom who fit the victim profile. The legislators and judges know all this. It’s their job to know.
A few politicians have spoken out. In 1970, in the wake of prison insurrections in our country, we find these comments on record:
“The appalling conditions and practices in many of our penal institutions can do more damage to a young person than his use of marijuana,” said then New York State Representative Ed Koch before he became Mayor of New York City.
But as Mayor of one of the greatest cities on earth, what did Ed Koch do to end those appalling conditions and practices?
“I think you are absolutely correct as to the consequences for these young men,” agreed then Philadelphia District Attorney Arlen Specter, now a Republican senator of Pennsylvania. “Men who got into the prison facilities and who are victims of attack, or who may join in the attack, come out more finely-honed weapons against society than when they went in. Can any of us understand the degradation and hatred a young man must feel when he is released into a community after being raped?” asked Specter.
Yet as a powerful and influential senator now, what is Arlen Specter doing to end the system of prison rape which creates so much degradation and hatred in young men?
Prisoner rape violates two amendments to the US Constitution, the 8th forbidding cruel and unusual punishment and the 13th forbidding slavery. (Many victims of prisoner rape become sexually enslaved by a dominant prisoner and are often forced into prostitution for contraband such as drugs which, in the reality of prison culture, are often smuggled in by guards.) Reactionaries predictably claim that prison rape doesn’t exist, complaining that, to the contrary, prisoners are coddled and prisons are too comfortable. Such voices are especially shrill when prison reform activists report on atrocities. (I observe reactionaries to be very selective about what parts of the Constitution they defend. For instance, property rights, “yes,” and to hell with human rights.)
Curbing Prisoner Rape There is one quick, simple and inexpensive solution to at least drastically cut down on prisoner rape and it has been used in San Francisco City/County Jail for more than a decade. I’ve been jailed there a number of times for civil disobedience and each time I was screened by a male nurse whose job it was to separate the obviously vulnerable prisoners from the obviously vicious.
So I’d like to thank San Francisco Sheriff Mike Hennessy and his staff for doing the decent thing and contributing to the solution rather than the problem. But it occurs to me, if the solution is so simple, why isn’t it more widespread? The extent to which it is not is evidence that SPR’s charge is correct, that prisoner rape is indeed used as a management tool.
God Is Truth Christians say, God is love. But I go along with Gandhi who said “God is truth.” Despite having been intimate with perhaps the worst horror of confinement and despite being an emotional cripple as a result, I have long believed my rape in San Antonio thirty years ago was the greatest single lesson and the greatest single blessing of my life to date. It forced me to know myself, as Socrates urged his students. And it knocked me into a higher consciousness, closer to the Great Spirit.
From this great lesson and blessing, I remain optimistic that the prophecy of Victor Hugo will one day become a reality:
“We shall one day come to look upon crime as a disease. Physicians shall displace judges and hospitals the gallows. We shall pour oil and balm where we formerly applied iron and fire. And evil will be treated with charity instead of in anger—a change simple and sublime. The gentle laws of Christ will penetrate at last into the code and shine through its enactments.”
It is to this end we work; not just an end to prisoner rape. I rest my case.
Tom Cahill is a long-time political activist, mainly concerned with issues of justice and the environment. He’s been a member of Earth First! since 1990 and is currently president of Stop Prisoner Rape Inc. Tom lives on the Mendocino Coast of California. He can be reached at PO Box 632, Fort Bragg, CA 95437, or 707/964-0820. www.spr.org