TV & Radio
The New York Times
Panel on Prison Rape Hears Victims' Chilling Accounts
By CAROLYN MARSHALL
Published: August 20, 2005
Three prison rape victims at the San Francisco hearing on the problem. From the left, Cecilia Chung, Hope Hernandez and Chance Martin.
SAN FRANCISCO, Aug. 19 - T. J. Parsell was a lanky pimple-faced adolescent bent on mischief. So when he found a toy gun one evening in 1978 while wandering home from a high school party, he thought nothing of pointing it at a store clerk and grumbling, "Your money or your life."
He got $50 for what he now calls "a stupid impulsive prank." The incident landed the 17-year-old Parsell in an adult jail, where on his first night, an older inmate spiked his drink with Thorazine and sexually abused and raped him.
"While my friends prepared for our high school prom, I was being gang raped," Mr. Parsell testified on Friday to a Congressional commission investigating prison sexual abuse and rape.
Mr. Parsell, now 45, and a successful software executive who lives on Long Island, was one of six victims of prison rape to relate disturbing accounts with a bipartisan panel of The National Prison Rape Elimination Commission here.
"What they took from me went beyond sex," Mr. Parsell said. "They'd stolen my manhood, my identity and part of my soul."
The panel, which also heard from state and federal legislators, law enforcement and prison officials and mental health experts, has been investigating the prevalence, cause and possible solutions to a problem that many experts say has escalated as the prison system is collapsing. Overcrowding, staff shortages and budget cuts have contributed to an often taboo topic.
"As a society, we have an obligation to protect the people we lock up, even though they have harmed society," the commission chairman, Judge Reggie B. Walton of Federal District Court in Washington, said. "Some people say inmates get what they deserve. But they don't think about the overall impact on society."
The body, created by the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, was appointed by President Bush in June 2004, focusing on questions like inmates' physical and mental problems after being released and economic burdens.
Judge Walton, speaking before the meeting here, the second in a national series, conceded in an interview that the government did not know the magnitude of prison rape.
"We don't really know the prevalence right now," he said. "But I've been in the criminal justice system for 20 years and I have always believed the anecdotal evidence."
On July 31, the Justice Department released its first statistical report on prison rape and inmate sexual abuse, a report also required under the 2003 act. It estimated that there were at least 8,210 reported incidents of sexual abuse and rape a year within a prison population that exceeds 2.1 million.
According to the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, prison assaults rose 26 percent from 2000 to 2004.
Kendell Spruce told the commission that he was infected with H.I.V. after having been raped at knifepoint in 1991 in an Arkansas state prison. Mr. Spruce, who was convicted of forging a check to buy cocaine, said that in one nine-month period he was raped by at least 27 inmates. He was 28 years old and weighed 123 pounds.
"The physical pain was devastating," he said. "But the emotional pain was even worse."
A spokeswoman for the Arkansas Correction Department told The Associated Press that the accusations were untrue that that she believed that Mr. Spruce initiated the activity or was a willing participant. After his five-year term, Mr. Parsell returned to society as an addict of drugs, to "drown out the memories and pain."
He continues to hold back tears as he says he still struggles with the emotional residue of rape, a crime that tarnished his self-esteem and ability to trust.
Chance Martin, 50, an advocate for the homeless here, told the panel that he was incarcerated for 72 hours in April 1973, when he was arrested as an 18-year-old at a party where another guest had hashish. The charges were dropped, but Mr. Martin's three days in jail nearly ruined his life.
"On a purely emotional level," he said after testifying, "I have issues with self-confidence and trust since that day."
Mr. Martin echoed others' statements when he faulted a deteriorating prison system and what he described as a society that is indifferent, and at times disdainful, of people who have been incarcerated.
"Prison rape is a symptom of American society's retreat from rehabilitation toward a system that relies purely on punishment," he said.
The secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Roderick Q. Hickman, told the panel that California was trying to quantify the problem. But he said outdated prison designs, inadequate electronic surveillance systems and an antiquated computer database had stalled progress.
The information technology "system in California is completely inadequate," Mr. Hickman said.
"We need a system that can report and handle the cultural classifications of the population." he added.
Mr. Hickman, appointed last month, said he was working to streamline and centralize procedures to investigate accusations of sexual abuse that were previously handled by individual prisons.
To address guard intransigence, the department has established training programs intended to break what Mr. Hickman called "the code of silence" among guards, behavior that has helped conceal prison rapes.
Representative Barbara Lee, a California Democrat who was an initial co-sponsor of the 2003 law, equated prison rape with human rights violations. She and other prison rights advocates have stressed the need for "zero tolerance" and a corrections system that accommodates different sexual and cultural orientations.
"By doing nothing," Ms. Lee said, "we condone this inhumane and abusive behavior. Indifference, deliberate or not, violates the Eight Amendment of the Constitution banning cruel and unusual punishment."
In the afternoon, the panel heard criminologists, law enforcement officials and leaders of transgender, lesbian, gay and bisexual groups about the need for better inmate classification.
"We don't want a first-time offender charged with drunken driving to be housed next to a guy who has committed multiple armed robberies, and who has been in and out of the system for years," said Bart Lanni, the sheriff's deputy for Los Angeles County.
Mr. Lanni said misplaced inmates ran an increased risk of being a target of sexual abuse.
"Predators looking to rape someone tend to pick people without close ties or a gang affiliation," Dr. Terry A. Kupers, a psychiatrist and an expert on prison rape, said.
All the victims testifying on Friday said that they might have escaped their rapes if the authorities had placed them with inmates of similar age, race, sexual orientation and the same categories of crime.
US: Commission to hear from prison rape survivors in SF - AP