The Long View: Prisoners, Condoms, and [a]Moral Idiocy
My first contact with Stephen “Donny the Punk” Donaldson began in the 1990s when I was running an e-mail group for bisexuals when no other such group existed at the time.
This was a man who spoke eloquently and openly about issues that generally make us uncomfortable. Donny was a peace activist who, after having been arrested for a peaceful White House protest, suffered numerous sexual assaults over the course of his incarceration.
When he would send e-mails, the direct and up front nature of his activism was immediately visible. Whereas many users would send e-mails with their own name attached, he would add a tag in his. All his e-mails came from Stephen Donaldson — “Stop Prisoner Rape”.
I only corresponded with Donny for a brief couple of years before he died from complications related to the HIV that infected him as a result of those prison rapes. But his work as an activist had a profound effect on me.
The news this morning that most prisons will not give condoms to inmates has got me thinking about Donny, [a]moral idiocy and what we do in the name of “justice.”It’s common to see jokes about prison rape in movies and television. Sometimes the jokes are subtle and sometimes much more direct, but they all have something in common: they dismiss the seriousness of the problem and make light of it in a way which suggests that it’s not worth real consideration.
But the reality is different. The social environment of prisons blurs the line between rape and sex, and it blurs the line between consent and coercion. Even though it may, on the surface, seem as though it has something to do with homosexuality, the topic is actually entirely distinct from sexual orientation. Sex, in confinement, whatever you may think about it, is primarily about power.
But even sex connected with power doesn’t need to be a death sentence for the people involved. Countless prisoners dealing with rape in prisons suffer a great deal of additional damage beyond their incarceration. While the topic may be uncomfortable, sexual intercourse does happen in prisons and without a proper means to protect those prisoners (especially the non-violent offenders who are sometimes at mercy from the more violent in the groups), we end up introducing a much greater risk factor of STD transmission both into prisons and into the population at large.
The response to the idea, however, has been less than stellar:
Despite such warnings, recent efforts to expand behind-bars condom access have gone almost nowhere. Prison officials contend that condoms can be used to conceal drugs, and law-and-order politicians scoff at what they depict as a step that would encourage both consensual and coercive sex.
“Removing the freedoms of criminals is in itself a deterrent,” said California Assemblyman Paul Cook. “Allowing condoms into prisons simply sends the wrong message and confirms what we all suspect: Our prison system has serious and severe behavioral and inmate-control issues.”
So let’s stipulate something: I have no problem with acknowledging that “our prison system has serious… inmate-control issues.” This is because we don’t have the resources to control every single aspect of every prisoner’s life while in prison. We don’t have the ability to watch over them every single second of their time and, furthermore, we don’t have the interest in doing so. It is ridiculous to assume that prisoners will not have sex and it’s ridiculous to assume that many of them want to have unsafe sex.
But our [a]moral police are, as usual, more interested in complaining about lack of compliance than in dealing with reality.
I should be clear: I admit fully, when I write about this, that I would, most likely, not even be thinking about much of it if it weren’t for Donny: one man who spoke eloquently and clearly about his experiences, his life and his expected death. Prisoners? Condoms? Who cares, really?
When Donny died, it was not a shock to me. It was an inevitability. Sometimes, when someone you know dies, there’s a finality to it, as though you’ve lost all connection with that person and will never have it back again.
In Donny’s case, the activism he started clicked with me and has never really disappeared. His courage and fearlessness in the face of his own death inspired me then and continues to inspire me today, more than a decade later.
Recently, when talking about Pete Seeger, I wrote the following:
What we do today can cause ripples into the future. The rights we stand up for today can influence the next generations, and the cowardice we show today will affect our children and our grandchildren.
What will you do next time you hear someone joke about rape and prisons? Will you laugh? Will you shrug it off? Will you say something about it?
What we do today can cause ripples into the future. People, innocent or otherwise, are arrested all the time. They may or may not deserve incarceration. They never deserve rape, and they never deserve the death sentence that comes with HIV.