Prison Rape and the Spread of AIDS
email to Patricia Nell Warren

Patricia Nell Warren's Personal Page

Maggie Heineman here. 

I believe you will find the  circumstances which led to Patricia sending this email interesting.

I am a subscriber to the Exodus General Private list which Gene Chase owns.  On December 16, 1997  Gene started a thread on prison rape.  I jumped in by quoting info about prison rape that is in Patricia Nell Warren's article,  Choice and Sexual Orientation: The Sword that Cuts Two Ways.

This led to a question from another member of the list which, with permission, I forwarded to Patricia. This is her reply, which I forwarded to the Exodus list.


Choice in Sexual Orientation: The Sword that Cuts Both Ways (re the APA resolution)

The Holidays: Ceremony for Everyone

Right to be Spiritual

"And Liberty for All"  in  the South

More editorials from PNW

Wildcat Press Online Order For

Hi Maggie,

Anybody who wants data on prison rape can find Stop Prisoner Rape's site at They can be in touch with the organization, who will be happy to supply figures, I'm sure. This is not a problem whose existence is arguable, although prison authorities have done their best to cover it up. I grew up in a prison town (Montana state penitentiary, which was one of the worst in the country) so I have sharp feelings about this. The problem probably existed always, but it seems to have spiked from the time when our prisons got hugely overcrowded, and it exists in juvenile detention as well as adult prisons. 

As far as I know, there are no "safe" prisons -- the problem is pretty general, and tends to focus on young prisoners, who are regarded as "new meat." Some prisons are known to be worse (more violent) than others. Openly gay prisoners, crossdressers, etc. are often kept in a special "gay tank" because of the targeted sexual violence directed at them. 

The vast majority of prison rapes are committed by straight men. Sex is as much a power thing as a means of sexual gratification, and the different ethnic groups, especially, are into raping each other to show their power and maintain control. The Aryan Brotherhood love to rape men of color to show their superiority, and on down the line. The film "American Me" endeavoured to portray this problem as part of its story about a Mexican Mafia chief...which was the main reason why the "Eme" got mad at Edward Olmos and took out a contract on him. The "Eme" considered that their manhood had been dissed by the film's open portrayal of prison sexual violence. 

The existence of this problem really ought to make Americans think about what this country does to its men to make them so power-mad, crazy and violent in this way, and why we go on pretending that it doesn't exist. Here is fertile ground for the PK, if only they would get more honest!! Conservatives go on talking about prisons as "country clubs with TV and educational opportunities" and most of them simply refuse to admit what hellholes our prisons really are. I always just about vomit when I see TV evangelists posturing about their wonderful "prison ministries" and never talking openly about the rape problem. 

Prison rape is also a major factor in the spread of AIDS. A straight man who is raped and seroconverts in prison will then leave and take the infection home to his wife, girlfriends, possibly his children, etc. This fact ought to be obvious to anybody who thinks about it. Probably more sex goes on prison than in the gay community, and probably way more HIV is spread in prison than in the gay community. But of course few people want to be honest about this... most want to go on blaming the gay community and barebacking for the rate in HIV infection. Prison authorities are belatedly beginning to try to isolate HIV+s and to test prisoners, but my impression is that the problem is really out of hand. 

The question of mandatory HIV reporting is coming up more and more, and more states are passing laws requiring the health status of citizens to be reported. More states are criminalizing sex by individuals who know they are positive. But what is the moral and legal responsibility of the states and federal government for the huge HIV infection rate going on right in their own penal institutions? Aren't the state and federal government willing accomplices in "attempted murder" for refusing to put a stop to this problem immediately, once and for all??? Indeed, there are already cases heading through the courts, in which men who were raped and infected in prison are demanding accountability from the penal system. These cases haven't gotten much publicity, because the media mostly think it's too nasty to talk about. 

The only solution would be to keep each prisoner in solitary...and this was the original model of the "penitentiary" as developed in Pennsylvia in early days. I guess the founding fathers were smarter than we are...more interested in real rehabilitation, less greedy and determined to simply warehouse large numbers of prisoners as we are doing now. 

I could go on and on...but best that interested people do their own research and talk to SPR. They will find plenty of data if they look. 

Oh...and SPR was one of the plaintiffs in the CDA censorship case, because their site -- with its letters from prisoners talking frankly about the problem -- might have been deemed "indecent" under the law. 

Patricia Nell Warren Wildcat Press

text © 1997 Patricia Nell Warren, all rights reserved.

October 6, 1999

<<Dear Ms. Warren, After reading your essay on prison rape and AIDS, I wondered what your proposed solution is. Also, are there any statistics on AIDS cases from prison rape vs. other origins, including barebacking? Sincerely, >>


There are a number of important points.

(1) Statistics are hard to come by. Most inmates and former inmates who have been raped in prison, or coerced into prison sex through threats of violence, are reluctant to talk about it. There is the personal shame and the "silence code," meaning dire reprisals if you talk to outsiders about prison problems. You can get in touch with Stop Prison Rape at and see what statistics they have. They are involved with inmates who are suing state authorities alleging that the state was responsible for their being infected with HIV because prison authorities failed to investigate their complaints of sexual attacks. 

You can also contact the National Corrections Commission. Recently they did admit to a prison HIV infection rate that is five times higher than the national average. These figures represent what they happen to know about 1.2 million men and boys in prison, and a growing number of women. No doubt the actual rate (including unreported infections) is even higher. Since gay men's statistics are included in the national average, that NCC figure is very high compared to the gay figures.

(2) Your question about barebacking is a little redundant. "Barebacking," as most Americans know it, is a much publicized practice of unprotected sex by some (not all) gay and bisexual men...whereas prison rape is perpetrated almost exclusively by heterosexual men. Yet prison rape is in effect a "bareback" act. Condoms are not available in prison! Prison authorities refuse to distribute condoms, saying they believe they'll encourage even more sexual activity if they do. (Gay men in prison are often the objects of this sexual violence, and in some prisons are kept in separate facilities because of this.) (3) AIDS is not the only issue; it's time to factor in other sexually transmitted diseases in prison as well. You can go to the CDC site at and look at the statistics for gonorrhea, syphilis, chlamydia, etc. and then ask yourself how many of those partner-tracing cases would lead you back to somebody who was infected while behind bars. Chlamydia is serious because it can render the infected person sterile for life. I doubt the studies have been done...and somebody should be doing them.

(4) Solutions? The problem is complicated, and the list of different avenues of attack is long. A few I could mention:

a. Prisons, both adult and juvvie, are way overcrowded. The old Auburn model was two to a cell -- now there is often four and five to a cell. Ironically the growth of maximum security and solitary lockdown, with one man to a cell 23 hours a day, is a partial deterrent. Solitary is really a revival of the old 19th-century Quaker model, where each inmate routinely lived alone. But maximum security costs the taxpayers big. If our law-demanding public and our government would stop penalizing nonviolent crime so heavily, and stop creating all kinds of new crime with every new crime bill that goes into effect, population pressures would be relieved. 

b. The growing practice of sentencing youthful offenders to adult prisons has to stop. Public indignation about their crimes is all well and good...but these boys are the objects of sexual overture and violence the moment they go in. (Oh, and things aren't much better in juvenile detention.)

c. Prison practice of mixing mutually hostile groups of men into general populations have to stop. A lot of the rape is politically and ethnically motivated, and has little to do with sex per se.

d. Prison guard unions have to stop blocking investigations of their own culpability regarding sexual violence against inmates in both men's and

women's prisons. The recent revelations of prison guard brutality towards women in Michigan state prisons is a case in point. (There was a special about this on, I think, "Investigative Reports." California is another state where the correctional officers' union has blocked investigation.

e. Prison health care has to improve. Right now most prisons provide little or no sexual health care. The State of California had to be literally forced, by court order, to use funds available for STD health care.

f. The right and ability of inmates to complain about sexual violence has to be established, and they have to be free of fear of reprisal.

g. Beyond that, the American public has to get their head out of the sand. Most people just don't want to know about prison rape, let alone that heterosexual men are doing it. My stomach sinks every time I hear some

conservative talking about our "country club prisons." Every one of these knotheads ought to spend a month in general population, and then I'll ask him if he thinks it's such a country club. The fact is, the violence has gotten so bad that many male inmates exit prison with what used to be called "combat fatigue." 

h. Prison also has to stop being the kneejerk quickfix answer to everything. We need to start addressing many of our social problems, like drug addiction, prostitution, juvenile delinquency, etc. in ways other than prison. Like home detention or halfway houses or live-in work programs, like Job Corps, Conservation Corps, etc. For instance, homeless people are now being railroaded into prison because communities don't want to deal with them. Six months in county jail for sleeping on the sidewalk? This is outrageous. Hard time ought to be for the barest minimum of hard-core offenders. Even in medieval times they had more sense than we do -- they built their mighty dungeons to house a few high-profile captives and offenders, and let the rest go. 

i. Ordinary Americans need to know that prisons have become big business. In other words, Americans who stand to benefit economically from any status quo in prisons are becoming more and more entrenched. Building and maintaining prisons is a billion-dollar business, and is more and more subcontracted to the private sector. Americans need to know that companies like Wackenhut (they actually have a website) have a lot of political juice. Private prisons also operate beyond the reach of most civil-rights law applying to inmates. Our citizens have a right to know this happening, and a right to decide whether they want an economy that has a growing dependency on prison labor. 

j. Our media have to get more committed to exposing conditions in prison. Some legal parameters around inmate access to the media are currently in court. Within existing parameters, there are growing number of TV news

specials about prisons -- but these seldom address the sexual violence. I have a big issue with the L.A. Times because they have taken a courageous step towards exposing California prison guard complicity in general "brutality," but they haven't gone the whole way and addressed the sexual violence. They have even published a series of articles on the rising HIV rate among young black men, in which they failed to connect this with the obvious fact that one out of every 4 or 5 young black men spends time behind bars. 

k. Definitely the black community and the Latino community need to wake up and stop blaming their rising HIV rates on the "homosexual lifestyle and the homosexual community." Currently, according to the L.A. Times, many of their commentators and church people appear to be arming themselves for greater battle against "gay lifestyle" among their men. Meanwhile, the macho code in both communities makes it impossible for men to talk about prison rape,

especially when they've been raped by a member of a rival ethnic group. Aryan Brotherhood men raping black men, or black men raping Mexican men, is definitely a taboo subject in their communities. So most people agree to blame "homosexuals," because gays are the easy target.

l. Generally, it's way past time for the "gay stigma" on sexually transmitted disease to be over. The longer that heterosexual Americans continue to believe that STD is just a gay problem, the more horrific a penalty they'll pay down the line, when their own families are finally affected. 

m. Taxpayers need to get clear on how our overblown violent prisons cost them. Masses of people in prison raise the issue of cost to the public, and how this cost will be reimbursed. The obvious way for prisons to pay their way is prison labor and product. This is the direction that China went. And it's where the U.S. is heading too, quite clearly. We already have a variety of prison-made products on the market. Working U.S. prisoners at 12 cents an hour is way cheaper than employing somebody in Mexico, Honduras, Macau, Taiwan for 50 cents an hour. And gosh, prisoners can't collectively bargain or strike. I imagine that some people in our wonderful government view U.S. prison labor as the perfect solution for stopping the flight of U.S. business to labor-cheap venues abroad, and for breaking the power of many U.S. unions.

Ironically, anyone who wants to see prisons more commercially productive will have to come up with creative ways to end the violence in prison. Detroit, for example, would produce way fewer cars if that kind of disruption prevailed on civilian assembly lines.

n. Our legislators need to be confronted with the fact that we spend more on prisons than on education. Here, if anywhere, is the answer to "what's wrong with American education." Taxpayers need to be walked through the decaying infrastructure of our schools, and told, "This is what you get because you have been so gung-ho about prisons." It's certainly the problem in California, where many kids in my own school district, LAUSD, don't have books, and roofs leak, and rats run in the hallway, and one toilet serves 800 kids...while fancy new high-tech prisons are going up all over the state. I do volunteer work in LAUSD so I know what I'm talking about.

In short, sexual violence in prison thing is part of the tip of a vast iceberg -- the visible effect of bad decisions about human behaviour and economics that Americans have been making for many decades. Prison rape is a reflection of the general sexual violence that prevails outside the prison walls. One has to ask the old question of why our country is so sexually violent -- it's not like this in so many other countries, even in prisons of some other countries. 

There aren't any easy fixes, I think. But ultimately, we have to ask what the cost to American families is, when so many men come back into civilian life from years of hidden sexual brutality in prison -- either being victims of it, or perpetrating it. Somebody ought to be doing studies on how many rapists, sex criminals and domestic abusers have already done time behind bars and been victims or perpetrators of sexual violence there.

If you are a journalist, or you are in politics, or you are active in your church, or whatever, you will hopefully join your voice with those of us who are concerned at the lengthening shadow of prison walls across American life.

Best, Patricia Nell Warren

My remarks are Copyright ©1999 by Patricia Nell Warren, all rights reserved. You can quote me by asking permission.

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