FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
Now we have a subject that's harsh and too often ignored. We are talking about rape in prison. Human Rights Watch estimates that 22 percent of male inmates in the U.S. have been raped at least once during their incarceration. The HIV rate in prisons is four times higher than it is in the general population. And in addition to rape, there's also consensual sex between inmates, and sometimes consensual sex or rape between inmates and guards. Some groups say prisons should give out condoms and others are fighting that suggestion. We continue our month-long look at the criminal justice system with a look inside the sexual health of prisoners. A warning to our listeners, this conversation may be graphic in nature and not suited for children. Joining me today are former prison inmate, Keith DeBlasio, and in a few minutes Lovisa Stannow, the executive director of Stop Prisoner Rape. She is going to start - join us in the conversation. Keith, how long were you incarcerated?
Mr. KEITH DEBLASIO (Prison Rape Victim): Well, I was incarcerated for almost 10 years between the federal and state system. In 1994, I was incarcerated on interstate trafficking of forged securities and credit card fraud with both the federal and state authorities. And basically, I was a white-collar criminal with no security risk and placed at an institution that was a - what the federal government considers a camp. It had no fence, no towers. You were kind of on your honor to stay there. But during that time I was sent to another institution with a little bit higher security level because of my being a little more apt to complain about things that weren't being done right by those who were caring for those who were incarcerated. And I was sexually assaulted at Milan, FCI Milan Michigan.
CHIDEYA: And once you were assaulted, you began getting ill. Is that right?
Mr. DEBLASIO: Correct. In my situation, it was actually somebody that they moved into the room with me after having been warned that I felt threatened, and they knew that he was HIV-positive. At that point, I didn't know. I became ill and just by chance, a friend of ours who I've seen as a physician as well was head of Walter Reed's Infectious Disease Clinic at the time. And she convinced me that I may be seroconverting, and that I needed to have another HIV test done. Which kind of took a little bit of pull from a couple of legislators because I had just had one done and the Bureau of Prisons refused to do it again so soon. But at that point, I found out that as a result of the sexual assaults, I was HIV-positive.
CHIDEYA: So when you say assaults, this was not one incident. This was many?
Mr. DEBLASIO: Yes. And what tends to occur a lot of times in the prison environment is individuals who use threats, coercion to continue an assault relationship. In other words, it's not quite what we see on "Oz," where there's a one-time. Those situations occur, but more common is the person who is in fear of their life who continues to submit on a regular basis. And that's kind of, you know, what happened in my case, as this individual demonstrated that he was the leader of the Vice Lords, one of the two major gangs at the institution, and that he had even connections with staff that would allow him to do whatever he wanted to do and you just were not going to be safe.
CHIDEYA: I'm going to talk to you a little bit more, Keith, in a second. But I want to bring in Lovisa. She is working on this issue from an institutional level. Tell us a little bit. You're the director of Stop Prisoner Rape. How did your organization come to work on this issue, which, frankly, a lot of people don't even want to talk about?
Ms. LOVISA STANNOW (Director, Stop Prisoner Rape): Well, Stop Prisoner Rape was started by a group of survivors, as we call the victims. And who had all survived sexual abuse in a jail or a prison and who came together to take action and try to improve policies and practices and put an end to this really wide-spread and neglected human rights crisis.
CHIDEYA: When you say neglected human rights crisis, what kind of issues are you really trying to combat?
Ms. STANNOW: We're trying to combat the whole range of sexual abuse that occurs in all forms of detentions. We're talking about anything ranging from brutal gang rapes to sexual harassment. And it's all linked and all contribute to the very pervasive culture of abuse that occurs in almost all detention facilities.
CHIDEYA: So the issue of condoms in prison is one that is really controversial. What's the state of play?
Ms. STANNOW: Well, Stop Prisoner Rape believes that condom distribution in prison is a good idea. It's a public health issue, and it's also a human rights issue. That incarceration simply should not lead to serious illness and premature death. And we need to make sure that we help people keep safe and not have happen to them what happened to Keith. And we also know for a fact that the kind of ongoing abusive relationships that Keith highlighted, within those relationships there is often room to negotiate condom use.
CHIDEYA: Keith, your - you were a victim, or a survivor, of assault. And did you also hear about consensual sex within the prison?
Mr. DEBLASIO: Oh, certainly. I think that there are many situations of consensual sex as well as just, you know, what borders between coercion and just bartering, you know. There's a whole different environment inside a prison system, where there's so many things denied to you and so many power positions within, you know, structures, that sometimes, whether it is an actual physical force, a coercion by threat, or coercion by, I need certain things to survive, or I need to feel protected, I need to feel comfortable, to then those who are completely consensual and those who may be, you know, prostituting within the institution to get cigarettes or whatever. So there's the whole gamut of people who are exposed to infectious disease that way.
CHIDEYA: Lovisa, I want to talk about the Prison Rape Elimination Act. It was a federal law that was passed with bipartisan support in 2003. Has that changed things?
Ms. STANNOW: Absolutely. Stop Prisoner Rape worked very hard to help develop and advocate in favor of that law. And four and a half years after its passage, we really do see a difference. It may not have trickled down yet to the actual facility level, but we certainly see a much more serious discussion among corrections administrators and lawmakers and policymakers, that even five years ago you would still hear wardens and prison managers claim that sexual abuse was not really a problem. And we don't hear that any more. The question now is, how do we address the problem?
CHIDEYA: In fact, the Bureau of Prisons didn't offer us a spokesperson for the interview, but they did issue a statement that says, "The Bureau of Prisons is committed to minimizing the risk of sexual assault within federal prisons. We've increased the number of staff who directly supervise inmates." And, you know, they talk about increasing technology in surveillance. Just quickly, Keith, do you think - do you see the effects of that commitment? Do you think it exists?
Mr. DEBLASIO: Oh, I do. And I have to say that in my situation I think it was a very rare case of having prison authorities so either oblivious or participating in allowing things to go on. That's not the typical situation. I think most of our prison staff, our prison guards may become a little bit frustrated with their jobs, and therefore, you know, not believe when inmates are telling them something. But most of them don't want it to happen. You know, they - it is a rare situation where you have someone who participates or allows something to go on purposely.
CHIDEYA: Well, Keith, you know, I just - I have to say, I want to thank you so much for sharing your story. And Lovisa, thank you for joining us, both of you.
Mr. DEBLASIO: OK, well thank you.
Ms. STANNOW: Thank you.
CHIDEYA: Keith DeBlasio is an HIV-positive prison rape survivor, and Lovisa Stannow is the executive director of Stop Prisoner Rape.