In U.S. Prisons: Trans-Terror and a Culture of Rape

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Here is one carefully rewritten and revised section from chapter 1 of the newly released, 2015 edition of  The Executed God: The Way of the Cross in Lockdown America. I also treated this issue of prison rape in a special section of the 2001 edition. None of many reviewers even mentioned the section or the issue. Prison rape is often, still today, either ignored or joked about – with exceptions that I note below. I am actually angry that there is so little rage about this issue. Especially religious and theological minds seem too squeamish to address it, when in fact long traditions of Christian wars against flesh, women, the body and sexuality are one part of the condition generating the problem of prison rape. (Thanks again to Fortress Press, for permission to post this excerpt from the new book. The image above is from the cover of the book and is explained on pages xiv-xv of the new edition.)

The prison world – among it countless other forms of structural violence –  is also one of sexual violation. Here, I treat rape, sexual violation and the threat of these in prison as what I term “trans-terror.” This is not only because, in prison, trans-persons (trans-gender, trans-sexual, and others of LGBTIQ [1] community) are subject to special stigma and abuse.[2] That is true. But more broadly, I use the term “trans-terror” because when one becomes incarcerated in the U.S. system one’s body tends to be seen as “deviant,” and hence vulnerable, unprotected, even deserving of abuse. All prisoners, as sexual beings and as bodies generally, come under threat when they make “transit” into the prison.

“Trans-terror” is a systematic vulnerability that often includes sexual violation. In the prison, all persons, but especially those outside hetero-normative paradigms of sexuality are subjected to some of the worst abuses of hegemonic masculinism, the prevalent mode of U.S. mainstream sexual expression and discourse, which I will clarify further below.

The prisons deploy fear and intimidation, as well as disseminated and organized terror, in order to enforce gender conformity, especially conformity to hierarchalized, hegemonic masculinism. The problems I write of in this section do not focus on only violent practices inside correctional facilities, detention centers, or federal, state, and local prisons and jails. Just as importantly, these internal dynamics are significant because they express and reinforce sexual inequality and gender injustice in the larger society.[3]

There is also the problem that, in the wider society “outside,” rape in prison has been sensationalized, even fetishized in some quarters. This functions as another way to demonize the prison population, to render it sexually other, a cauldron of “the beastly,” the “deviant.” Jean Genet, the French writer who was often imprisoned in French dungeons, and who knew prison as what he termed an “infernal gorge,” should be recalled. Genet while denouncing the prisons for their brutal milieu, at times also described it as a place where prisoners work both humanity and love, reminding us that prisoners can experience healing touch among themselves, both men and women.[4] The existence of genuine erotic presence can persist in prison life. In fact, as Mogul, Ritchie and Whitlock stress, “many incarcerated men and women engage in consensual, loving, sexual relationships and friendships as a form of resistance to the isolation and violent dehumanization of prisons, as a tool of survival within them, to affirm their humanity, or simply as an exercise of basic human desire.” [5]

But this is not the norm for U.S. prison ethos and practice. In spite of the 2003 “Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA)” and some increased awareness today of the problem of rape in prison, the prison remains a place that concentrates our society’s hegemonic masculinism, a hierarchy of male control buttressed by sexual violence. Throughout U.S. society, the order of hegemonic masculinism shows two main, interacting spheres. First, there is a pervasive hierarchical system in which men dominate women in ways crude and debased, but also in modes sly and subtle. On many occasions, and not completely unlike white individuals’ abilities to presume (consciously and unconsciously) a structural white entitlement, men in a hegemonic masculinist society may presume power over women, and do so in ways that are allowed to appear as benign, and so male hegemony is often normalized.

A second sphere of hegemonic masculinism is evident when this hierarchical system of men and women is cross-cut by an inter-male dynamic that not only complexifies this hierarchical arrangement of men over women, but perpetuates it. The inter-male dynamic involves white men against men of color, wealthy against poorer men, stronger verses weaker men. These axes of conflict are intrinsic to hegemonic masculinism, wherein “groups of elite males subjugate and dominate groups of lesser-status males.” In this inter-male sphere “hegemonic masculinity accentuates male dominance, heterosexism, whiteness, violence and ruthless competition.”[6] In the prisons, the violent male prisoner exploiting a weaker male is one example of this inter-male violence.

The prison “tough,” who makes a punk of another male in prison, either through singular brutal acts or by extracting “consent from a “punk” who needs protection for survival, is exploiting his power over other men. No doubt. But he himself is an exploited and subordinated masculine subject vis-à-vis white “toughs”—such as white governors, DA’s, and other officials. These are society’s “toughs” who perform their masculinity before publics that fear and so hearken to resilient rhetoric about “getting tough on criminals.” Thus, if hegemonic masculinism and brutality inside prison are rightfully decried, it should not be forgotten that hegemonic masculinism outside prison is also involved, where white men, with the support of many white women, perform their masculinity over the imprisoned and invite the many other sectors (other racialized and minoritized groups of men and women) to compromise with this white masculinist hegemony.[7]

This trans-terror as inscribed into prison bodies often becomes fodder for public caricature and ridicule. In my state, New Jersey, talk shows offer up nervous titters about prison rape. Prison cinema and television shows signal the problem just enough to prompt the laughter, too little to foster understanding. Often overlooked are the ways prison culture systematically maintains and nurtures rape culture, targeting women and men made to be women. Again, members of LGBT and trans communities suffer especially egregiously in prison,[8] since they directly challenge the heteronormativity maintained by hegemonic masculinism.

Studies confirm a troubling, deeply-entrenched systematic and insidious problem, one which will not easily be redressed. Congress passed in 2003 the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), but it was not set into action until midway through the administration of President Barack Obama in 2012. In spite of the delayed implementation—and advocacy groups for the sexually violated played a key role in the struggle to enforce it [9]—sexual violence is still an entrenched feature of U.S. mass incarceration and its social life. David Kaiser and Lovisa Stannow, respectively the Chair of the Board and Executive Director of Just Detention International (JDI), one of the most intrepid organizers against prison rape and for implementation of PREA, cites analyses in 2011 Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reports, showing that there are over 216,600 cases of sexual abuse in prisons in a single year. They continue, “that’s almost 600 people a day—25 an hour.” [10]

The most vulnerable among all groups are trans persons, the increasing number of mentally ill that have been taken in by the prisons, and also women. Nearly half of these violations, according to still more recent BJS studies, are committed by prison staff, the very ones, observes JDI pointedly, whose job it is to ensure their safety from such violation. [11] In spite of the advance represented by passage and attempts to enforce PREA, this problem is so entrenched in the nature of the prisons and political structures of hegemonic masculinism that it will not quickly diminish.[12] Moreover, while efforts exist to extend PREA protections to those in private prisons and immigrant detention, those incarcerated in such facilities are often even more vulnerable, especially in the private-run facilities where the privatization ethos often inhibits enforcement of public mandates.[13] Overall, Mogul, Ritchie, and Whitlock underscore how deeply embedded is this violative ethos in all U.S. imprisonment:

The grim reality is that even though prison policies prohibit all sexual activity and violence, in practice prison officials not only allow and count on forcible sex, but use it to reinforce their own authority. Not only is forcible sex currency in prisons, but the prison system itself is predicated upon it. As a result, sexual violence is an entrenched and intractable feature of prison life . . . it serves the [so-called] “ideal” purpose of simultaneously queering prisons and punishing queerness and gender deviance. And because prisons are deemed to be queer spaces, it also serves to produce and strengthen queer criminal archetypes.[14]

Even as there are non-predatory prison workers and guards, the fact is that, structurally, guards and supervisors are dependent upon the practice and threat of sexual violation to divide and subdue the imprisoned population. While guards and supervisors themselves can use powers over the imprisoned for their own sexual power, especially male guards supervising females,[15] all guards and prison officials are part of what Parenti described as a thriving “sex chattel” system in which many men are made “female” sexual slaves, “punks” to other men.[16] In her essay for The New York Times, “Why We Let Prison Rape Go On,” and speaking as one previously imprisoned, Chandra Bozelko writes, “ultimately, prisons protect rape culture to protect themselves.” She adds, “rape persists, in other words, because it’s the cultural wallpaper of American correctional facilities.”[17]

In the men-on-men violence of prison rape, there is more than simply great suffering for the direct victims. There is also something like a ritual practice that continues the denigration of women and gender/sexually variant persons. Prison ritual practices of sexual degradation afflict the entire society by strengthening hegemonic masculinism in the prisons and jails from which more than 700,000 are released back into society each year.[18] In other words, the already existing exploitation of women and trans persons in the wider society is, in the prisons, honed into a destructive weapon where some men “make women” out of other men, and where the “women” who are so “made” become brutalized objects, “punks.”

The brutalizing men, it should be stated forthrightly, are not themselves gay. As noted by Human Rights Watch, “numerous judicial decisions, newspaper and magazine stories, and even some scholarly articles describe the threat of ‘predatory homosexuals’ in prison and the problem of ‘homosexual rape’.”[19] However, analyses repeatedly confirm that “the vast majority of those who rape in prison do not identify as, nor are they perceived as, gay.”[20] They are, instead, brutalizing men exercising a form of violence that is intrinsic to hegemonic masculinism. The terror of prison rape, therefore, can be seen as the creation and manufacture of ever more brutal men, who brutalize each other while strengthening the whole culture that brutalizes women. Recalling Henry Ford’s ideal of productive efficiency in assembly line manufacture of automobiles, Christian Parenti summarizes the “production process” at work in the culture of prison rape.

So the sexualized “other” is manufactured with almost Fordist regularity, on the conveyor belt of absolute sadism and homicidal violence . . . Sex slaves [in prison] are used as prostitutes, domestics and “wives.” They are forced to provide all the sexual, manual, and emotional services that men in a sexist society normally extract from women.[21]

There is here a complex cycle in the culture of state terror. It runs from sexist society to prison life between men (and between male guards and confined women), and then runs back out to reinforce more brutal practices on the outside. Rape as terror for the bodies of the confined also terrorizes the larger body politic. The systematic and officially sanctioned dimensions of rape are dramatized in an account by Dr. James Gilligan, a doctor and psychiatrist who has worked with some of the most violent men, an served as counselor to them and their prison guards in maximum security prisons in Massachusetts:

In one prison holding close to 700 inmates, one of the prison administrators, who was in a position to know, informed me that, out of that total number, probably no more than half a dozen men failed to engage in some form or other of regular sexual encounter with other men. How did he know that? Because in that prison an “observation gallery” overlooks every cell in the three tiers of its maximum-security wing so that the correction officers can observe what goes on within each and every cell . . . The vast majority of sexual relationships in prison occur in a context of coercion, whether by means of overwhelming physical force and violence, or by means of the credible threat of violence.[22]

The average citizen, with little familiarity of daily practice in prisons, may find it hard to believe that a systematically nurtured and tolerated rape culture exists in U.S. prisons. To be sure, no administrative guidelines in correctional institutions’ manuals suggest or allow for the practice. Many, if not most, supervisors, guards, and other prison personnel present themselves as good citizens trying to do a tough job, and many of them may do so. At the heart of many barbaric systems, however, there often have been significant numbers of basically kind individuals, who yet could not or will not challenge or alter the barbarity of the system. At the level of structured daily practice, rape thrives and functions positively for the sake of those who are the keepers of the confined. From a functional point of view, at least, a rape culture has become a kind of de facto family value in prison institutions, thriving among the network of guards, wardens, and supervisors. Needless to say, this makes for an institutionalized dysfunctional family in the extreme.

Allow me to end this section with a more positive point, since the extent of this problem may leave some readers in despair. This terror against prisoners’ bodies reveals the desperate lengths to which officials in the system will go to control those it confines. The administrative use of rape culture, and officials’ dependency upon it offers resisters to Lockdown America a kind of advantage, bitter fruit though it be; namely, the exposure of trans-terror and the prisons’ culture of rape destroys any pretense of prison officials and advocates of mass incarceration that U.S. prisons contribute to some higher moral or social virtue. That is a lie. If prison order can be maintained only by such terrorizing brutality, then the prison system itself is damnable. It is not just administratively imperfect. “Prison reform” tinkering will not do. Prisons are as morally bankrupt (often more so) as are those it claims need confining. Consequently, once the systematic practice is exposed in its depth and extent, the movements against prisoner rape have the capacity to destroy any moral justification for prisons. The prisons are predicated, recalling Mogul, Ritchie, and Whitlock, on a” forcible sex currency.”

Consider the full force of this. Mass incarceration as a structural practice with a rape culture targets the relational center of human-to-human life and interplay—namely, the site of sexual reproduction, sexual pleasure, and bodily touch—and breaks it up, twists it, constrains and confines it, so that human “relation” is forged into a destructive force that ravages the capacities to love and of bodies to flourish with integrity. That insight, for all its stinging harshness, counters the lie of imprisonment, which is, in Baldwin’s terms, the lie that presumes that it is the task of “the righteous to locate the damned” [23] The insight into prisons’ structural violence as a moral bankruptcy also helps warrant prison abolition, the “decarcerating” of the U.S.A., which I will treat in chapter 5 of this book as part of the other major material transformations treated also by the book.

[1] LGBTIQ here means “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer.” Still more complexly, some accent the range of sexual constructs by referencing LGBTTIIQ-2Sp to signal a fuller range of terms, meaning “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, intersex, inquiring, queer, and ‘2-spirit’,” the latter referring two-spirit identities in a gender-variant person of American Indian societies. On this latter, see Brian Joseph Gilley, Becoming Two-Spirit: Gay Identity and Social Acceptance in Indian Country (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2006). I believe I am following more recent theory on referencing sexual identities, in their flux, when I write, as I do in this book, simply of “trans persons.”

[2] For the data, see activist attorneys’ research and writing in Joey L. Mogul, Andrea J. Ritchie, and Kay Whitlock, Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States (Boston: Beacon Press, 2011), 98-103.

[3] Additional key studies here are offered by Dean Spade, Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics and the Limits of the Law (Brooklyn, NY: South End Press, 2011); and Eric A. Stanley and Nat Smith, eds., Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2011).

[4] Jean Genet, Miracle of the Rose, trans. Bernard Frechtman (New York: Grove Press, 1965), 4-5.

[5] Mogul, Ritchie and Whitlock, Queer (In)Justice, 95.

[6] Don Sabo, Terry A. Kupers, and Willie London, “Gender and the Politics of Punishment,” in Prison Masculinities, ed. Don Sabo, Terry A. Kupers, and Willie London (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001), 5.

[7] Ibid., 4-5.

[8] Clifton Goring/Candi Raine Sweet, “Being an Incarcerated Transperson: Shouldn’t People Care?” in Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex, ed. Eric A. Stanley and Nat Smith (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2011), 185-87.

[9] On the systematic problem and for the criticism of the Obama administration’s slowness to respond, see David Kaiser and Lovisa Stannow, “Prison Rape and the Government,” The New York Review of Books, March 24, 2011.

[10] For confirmation of these numbers see BJS statistics in United States Department of Justice, Proposed National Standards to Prevent, Detect and Respond to Prison Rape under PREA. Initial Regulatory Impact Analysis. January 24, 2011, page 15, Table 1, accessed July 1, 2015,

[11] Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Allegations of Sexual Victimization in Prisons and Jails Rose from 2009-2011: Substantiated Incidents Remained Stable,” Press Release, January 23, 2014, accessed July 1, 2015,

[12] At this writing, the PREA is embraced comprehensively in only two states, New Jersey and New Hampshire, and even in those states it is a struggle to implement it. Over forty other states have announced they will comply with PREA. Six Republican state governors have stated they cannot or will not comply, including Texas, which will suffer only a 5 percent decrease in federal funding for its refusal to participate. See Chandra Bozelko, “Why We Let Prison Rape Go On,” The New York Times, April 17, 2015, accessed June 20, 2015,

[13] Alex Friedman, “Prison Rape Elimination Standards Finally in Effect, but Will They be Effective,” Prison Legal News, September 15, 2013, accessed June 20, 2015,

[14] Mogul, Ritchie, Whitlock, Queer (In)Justice, 103 (quote marks for “ideal,” added).

[15] Parenti, Lockdown America, 190-93.

[16] Ibid. 185. See also Terry A. Kupers, “Rape and the Prison Code,” in Sabo, Kupers, and London, Prison Masculinities, 111-17.

[17] Bozelko, “Why We Let Prison Rape Go On.”

[18] United States Department of Justice, Proposed National Standards to Prevent, Detect and Respond to Prison Rape under PREA, page 9.

[19] See the Human Rights Watch report, No Escape: Male Rape in US Prisons (2001), cited in Mogul, Ritchie and Whitlock, Queer (In)Justice, 191n41.

[20] Mogul, Ritchie and Whitlock, Queer (In)Justice, 104.

[21] Parenti, 188. On “Fordism,” see David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (London: Basil Blackwell, 1989), 125-97.

[22] James Gilligan, Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic (New York: Vintage, 1996), 164-65. I consider Gilligan’s 1995 book to be essential reading, even today – 20 years later.

[23] James Baldwin, If Beale Street Could Talk (New York: Dial Press, 1974), 192.

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