Tom Cahill, a former president of Stop Prisoner Rape, was arrested during the Vietnam War for civil disobedience. An ideologically unsympathetic jailer put him in a cell with known sexual predators, telling them he was a child molester, and that if they “took care of him” they’d get extra rations of jello. For the next twenty-four hours Tom was gang-raped. He has never fully recovered from this.
Prisoners are at increased risk of sexual violence if they are gay, transgender, young, small, or mentally ill; also if they have been convicted of nonviolent crimes or if they simply don’t seem street-smart—in other words, if they’re perceived as relatively unable to defend themselves.
But that picture may not be wholly accurate. Even 10 years ago, there were accounts that the hell hole that is prison may be somewhat overstated:
In all my years behind bars, I’ve never seen a murder, a stabbing, or a rape. I believe some prisoners try to brag how tough prison is to make themselves look tough. They romanticize their prison experience by telling their friends and family how brutal prison was and how they had to fight for their lives every day.
…Of course, violence does happen in U.S. penitentiaries, but with over 1.6 million Americans locked up these days, the chance of being one of the few hundred inmates who are killed or seriously injured is slim.
– James D. Anderson, 1997
Despite this somewhat muted view, Anderson agrees that the weak suffer more than the strong and offers prescriptions to cope:
For the most part, even for the wrongly convicted sex offender, if you don’t owe debts from gambling or drugs, and if you stay away from the homosexuals, keep your head down, don’t bother anyone, and don’t act like a wimp and whine about your wrongful conviction, you won’t have to worry about prison violence. There is very little chance that you will be killed or even stabbed. But, if something does happen and you need to defend your good name, be a man and do it. In prison, your good name is all you have. If trouble comes your way in prison, you have to deal with it on the spot. Where are you going to run? You’re in a cage.
His is compelling if somewhat controversial reading.
In all my years in prison, I’ve observed hundreds of prison guards and only a couple could be considered normal. The typical male guard I have encountered is not someone you would consider a winner. He is usually a skinny geek (or is extremely overweight), is undereducated, has no ambition and is sadistic. His idea of success is a monthly state paycheck, a trailer home, a 12-pack of beer, and nightly TV. The typical female prison guard is homosexual, physically unattractive, overweight, and more masculine than most male prison guards. She’s mad at the world for not being born a man and she takes her penis envy out on prisoners.