AEGiS-Chicago Tribune: Lonely Mission Stephen Donaldson Wants to Stop the Sexual Abuse of Inmates by Inmates Chicago TribuneImportant note: Information in this article was accurate in 1995. The state of the art may have changed since the publication date.
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Lonely Mission Stephen Donaldson Wants to Stop the Sexual Abuse of Inmates by Inmates

Chicago Tribune (CT) - FRIDAY, June 23, 1995 Edition: NORTH SPORTS FINAL Section: TEMPO Page: 1 Word Count: 2,601
Gary Marx, Tribune Staff Writer

In a comfortable downtown Chicago restaurant, Stephen Donaldson is suddenly silent, his face turning a deep red, his eyes staring at nothing. Donaldson is trying to describe something so horrible, so sickening, so painful that it almost destroyed him.

"It is very difficult for me to talk about it," Donaldson says, taking a deep breath and pushing away his plate. "This is a good way to lose an appetite."

It began Aug. 9, 1973, when Donaldson--by then a college graduate, Navy veteran, journalist and Quaker pacifist--participated in a pray-in at the White House on the 28th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, Japan.

Donaldson was arrested for trespassing and sent to the Washington, D.C., jail, where he refused on moral grounds to post a $10 bond. Donaldson believed the bail system discriminated against poor people and minorities.

At first, Donaldson was housed in a section of the jail reserved for older and non-violent detainess. He spent an uneventful week playing chess and talking with other inmates.

But Donaldson said jail officials began pressuring him to pay his bail and get out. "I refused," Donaldson recalled. "I said I was going to stay until trial."

Soon after, Donaldson was transferred into the jail's general population--something officials evidently hoped would force Donaldson to pay the bail. Almost immediately, a young inmate who introduced himself only as "Baseball" approached Donaldson and said a group of inmates wanted to talk to him about his politics.

Not suspecting any threat, Donaldson followed Baseball into the inmate's cell. Eight men were waiting for him.

"They blocked the exit and told me to take my pants off," Donaldson recounted. "I said, 'Like hell.' They picked me up and began ramming my head against the iron railing of the top bunk. They sat me down on the toliet seat and Baseball stood in front of me."

Baseball ordered Donaldson to perform oral sex. Donaldson refused. "He started punching me," Donaldson said. "There just wasn't any way out. I was totally surrounded. I was terrified. They said if I said anything about it, they would kill me. At that point I gave in."

Donaldson was forced to have oral sex with Baseball. A second inmate demanded anal intercourse. When Donaldson refused, the inmate tore off Donaldson's pants, shoved a pillow over his head so that he couldn't scream and raped him. "It was excruciatingly painful," said Donaldson.

For the next four hours, several dozen inmates dragged Donaldson from cell to cell raping him.

Baseball collected two packs of cigarettes from each inmate who raped Donaldson. That was the price of sex in the D.C. jail. "This is just the way we welcome new kids on the first night," one of the rapists told Donaldson.

"You won't have to go through all this again." The inmate lied. The next night Donaldson was gang-raped again. "It was devastating psychologically," says Donaldson, his voice almost inaudible. "It seemed like I was going to spend the rest of my life . It was like the end of all hope."

Donaldson managed to escape his attackers and run to the nearest guard post, where he collapsed. The next day, after posting bail and being released, Donaldson held a press conference to tell the world about what had happened to him.

Since then, Donaldson hasn't stopped talking about the problem of prison rape, which he estimates affects more than 300,000 inmates each year at juvenile centers, adult jails and prisons nationwide.

As president of the New York City-based Stop Prisoner Rape--the nation's only advocacy group dedicated to the problem--Donaldson speaks to state legislators, law school students, psychologists, private attorneys, correctional officials, talk show hosts and just about anyone else who will listen.

Working out of his New York apartment on a shoestring budget, Donaldson corresponds with about 300 inmate victims of sexual assault and wrote a friend of the court brief in a landmark 1994 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that holds correctional officials liable if they fail to protect inmates against sexual assault. Donaldson also helped put together two groundbreaking audio tapes and manuals used in prisons to educate inmates and correctional officers about prison rape.

Hitting rock bottom

For Donaldson, it's been a lonely, difficult and bitter personal struggle. Donaldson, 48, has been imprisoned four times since his first jailing and raped repeatedly during each incarceration.

He dropped out of two graduate schools, bagged a promising journalism career and drifted from one job to another. He was briefly homeless, arrested twice for drug possession, started carrying a gun, and suffered through alternative bouts of rage, paranoia, helplessness and depression.

For years, Donaldson said his whole body would shake uncontrollably for no apparent reason. He suffered panic attacks when there were a lot of men around. He has suffered chronic insomnia and he attempted suicide in 1977.

Donaldson hit rock bottom in 1980 when he fired a handgun in the emergency room of a New York City hospital after he was denied treatment for a cut on his hand. Nobody was hurt, but Donaldson was convicted of assault with intent to commit murder and sentenced to 10 years in federal prison.

He was released after serving four years, started therapy for rape trauma syndrome and eventually became a rape counselor. Donaldson also intensified his efforts to publicize the problem of prison rape--something he describes as his "mission" in life.

But that, too, has been a difficult and frustrating experience.

Despite the publicity his case initially generated--hearings were held in the District of Columbia City Council in the early 1970s--Donaldson says his words have fallen mostly on deaf ears. The D.C. jail guards, who he alleges allowed him to be raped, were never punished. And Donaldson can't remember how many letters he's written about prison rape to politicians and prison officials that were never answered.

The public also hasn't been too interested in inmates being sexually abused behind bars. And correctional officials nationwide tend to downplay sexual assault in prison, saying that sex behind bars is rare and more often than not consensual.

"I don't want to minimize the problem, but I think that the number is relatively low," says Tom Metzger, speaking for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which runs 81 institutions with about 97,000 inmates. "There are a number of individuals who suggest that this is a much greater problem than we think it is."

But research tends to support Donaldson's contention that prison sexual assaults are not infrequent. A 1982 study found a 14 percent sexual assault rate in one California prison, while a 1984 study reported that 28 percent of the inmates in six New York state prisons had been the target of sexual aggression at least once.

A 1994 study found that 22 percent of male inmates at three Nebraska prisons reported they had been "pressured or forced" into sexual contact ranging from grabbing the genitals to oral or anal sex. Only 29 percent of the Nebraska inmates who had been sexually assaulted said they reported the incident to prison staff, the study found.

"This problem needs to be addressed," said Donaldson, who held a series of meetings in Chicago in May. "Even those members of the public who don't care about the humane treatment of prisoners need to understand that prison rape is a serious public safety issue.

"The rape system is an assembly line which takes young, non-violent newcomers and efficiently fills them with rage and a desire for revenge and then deposits them on our doorsteps," Donaldson added. "If they've also been infected with HIV, we've given them a death sentence which they in turn will spread. That will come back to haunt us all."


Criminiologists say prison rape has been around as long as there have been prisons. It has nothing to do with sex. It's an act of aggression, power and control.

"The whole idea is to force someone--to take away someone's manhood," said Wayne Wooden, who co-authored the California study and is coordinator of the Criminal Justice and Corrections program at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, Calif.

Wooden said that new inmates usually are targeted by sexual predators within three days of the newcomers' arrival in prison. The predators, called "jockers" or "studs," primarily go after young, attractive, heterosexual men.

Most of the victims are non-violent offenders who are unfamiliar with the Darwinian rules that govern life behind bars, criminologists say. And most of the targeted inmates are not affiliated with powerful street gangs that dominate life inside many prisons.

Wooden says that unless the targeted inmate fights back and wards off the attack, he will "get a reputation that he can be taken and he will be victimized." Predators also use a variety of tricks to lure weaker inmates into sexual relationships.

"As soon as a fish walks into prison, all the normal issues of survival come to the forefront," said Michael Mahoney, president of the John Howard Association, a Chicago-based prison watchdog group. "Weaker inmates have to hook up with stronger inmates or with a gang and part of that may be for sex. In other situations, they just decide they are going to rip you off for sex."

The perfect target

In many ways, Donaldson was the perfect target. A middle class kid born into a military family in Norfolk, Va., Donaldson was valedictorian of his high school class in Long Branch, N.J., and a graduate of Columbia University.

Before he was jailed in D.C., Donaldson had had only one brush with the law: He had been jailed for one night in 1968 after being arrested for trespassing during an anti-war protest at Columbia. Donaldson was also very spiritual, placing his trust in God to protect him.

"I was very naive. I wasn't prepared for anything monstrous like that," said Donaldson, referring to his jailhouse rape. "I knew that there were fights in jail, but I had never heard about gang rape."

Inmate Michael Blucker also says he wasn't prepared for what happened to him at Illinois' maximum-security Menard Correctional Center. Blucker, who filed a lawsuit last month in federal court against the Illinois Department of Corrections, alleges he was repeatedly raped by gang members between May, 1993, and April, 1994.

Blucker says he contracted the HIV virus, which causes AIDS, after being sexually assaulted--and that corrections officers failed to protect him even after he reported the attacks. A former resident of Crystal Lake, Blucker is incarcerated at the Dixon Correctional Center and is serving a 10-year sentence for residential burglary and automobile theft.

"I became a gang slut," said Blucker, 25, in a telephone interview. "I became my cellie's sex slave. He sold me for cigarettes, coffee, sometimes for nothing. You can't get over something like this. Everyday I think about it. Everyday I dream about it."

Blucker, a non-gang member, said the first rape occurred several days after his arrival at Menard when three gang members cornered Blucker in his cell, brandished homemade knives and wrapped an electrical cord around his neck. In another incident, several inmates beat Blucker over the head with bricks before gang-raping him in the shower room.

"I didn't do nothing unless my gang member told me to," Blucker said. "I feared for my life. I'd seen what they had done to other gang members. I wanted to come home alive, not in a box."

Howell of the Illinois Department of Corrections refused to comment on Blucker's lawsuit. But Richard Ahmad, executive director of the Prison Action Committee, a Chicago-based group that aides ex-cons, said it is "highly likely" that Blucker could have been sexually assaulted.

"The officers often leave the cellhouses totally unattended," said Ahmad, who served 17 years in six state prisons--including Menard--for murder. "The guards really don't have control over the cellhouses now."

A. Nicholas Groth, a Florida psychologist who has worked in the Massachusetts and Connecticut prison systems counseling victims of sexual assault, said the most traumatized rape victims are inmates like Donaldson.

"In Donaldson's case, he was not a hardened criminal who had adopted that value system and lifestyle," Groth explained. "To him, it would have been much more devastating psychologically than someone whose life has been marked by abuse, neglect, mistreatment, and institutionalization."


Donaldson is walking down Michigan Avenue and people are staring at him. With his Lincolnesque beard, thick glasses and white baseball hat that reads, "Stop Prisoner Rape," Donaldson does not fit into the crowd. He looks and acts like an outsider. Rape does that to a person, Donaldson explains.

"You feel alienated from everybody around you," said Donaldson. "I became extremely alienated from all power structures. Rape is ultimately a power issue. I started feeling like an outlaw--being outside the shelter and protection of the law."

In recent years, Donaldson has sought spiritual solace in the Buddist and Hindu religions. And he has found an outlet for his anger and rage in the punk scene, where Donaldson spends most weekends listening to jarring music and slam-dancing. He writes for several alternative music magazines under the byline "Donny The Punk."

But like many "survivors," it is Donaldson's cause--stopping prison rape--that has given him a reason to continue living in a world that has brought him so much pain and suffering. With an IQ of 180 and boundless energy, Donaldson has become a walking encyclopedia on the issue on sexual assault.

"I don't know anybody who is more knowledgeable about this issue both intellectually and through experience," said Fay Honey Knopp, former director of the Safer Society, a Vermont-based group that hired Donaldson to produce the audio tapes and manual about sexual assault in prisons.

During his two-day Chicago visit, Donaldson was in perpetual motion. He spoke to the Chicago Sun-Times' and Chicago Tribune's editorial boards, held a press conference with Michael Blucker's mother and the mother of another alleged Illinois prison rape victim and talked to psychologists at the Midwestern Psychological Association meeting.

He also met with a dozen private attorneys, American Civil Liberties Union officials, Mahoney of the John Howard Association, and State Rep. Cal Skinner (R-Crystal Lake), who is sponsoring legislation requiring state prison officials to inform new inmates how to avoid and prevent sexual assault, provide literature and tapes to inmates on rape and rape trauma and allow access by rape crisis counselors to inmate victims.

The bill, which Skinner says has little chance of being approved by legislature this year, also would require all prison officials to receive training on how to identify and prevent prison rape, and require guards notify the warden when they recieve a report about an actual or threatened sexual assault.

Donaldson supports the legislation, though he doesn't believe it goes far enough.

He is encouraging lawyers in Illinois and nationwide to file class action suits against correctional officials to force them to house weaker inmates away from sexual predators. Donaldson also wants prisons and jails to distribute condoms to inmates to slow the spread of AIDS behind bars.

It's an ambitious agenda. Donaldson is doing most of the heavy lifting himself. But Donaldson feels optimistic.

"I feel like I am finally able to get something done," said Donaldson. "To feel that somebody is listening to me, that gives me self-confidence. I don't feel as vulnerable as I used to."

CAPTION: PHOTO: Stephen Donaldson, president of Stop Prisoner Rape, estimates that more than 300,000 inmates are abused each year. Tribune photo by Walter Kale.



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