It's a subject most of us would rather not think about. We see it depicted in movies and on cable television shows like "Oz," but few of us can ever imagine it happening to our loved ones or ourselves. Linda Bruntmyer wasn't so lucky. Bruntmyer's then-16-year-old son, Rodney Hulin, was brutally raped while serving a prison sentence for setting a dumpster on fire. But their horror didn't end there.
Last week, Linda Bruntmyer came to Washington to tell her son's story, along with several other victims of prison rape. They were there to urge Congress to pass the Prison Rape Reduction Act, a bill that has bipartisan sponsorship and support in both houses of Congress.
"Rodney was a small guy, only 5'2" and about 125 pounds. And, as a first-time offender, we knew he might be targeted by older, tougher, adult inmates," Bruntmyer told the audience gathered in the Cannon House Office Building. "Then, our worst nightmares came true," she said. Rodney was brutally assaulted and raped. "But that was only the beginning. Rodney knew if he went back into the general population, he would be in danger. He wrote to the authorities requesting to be moved to a safer place. He went through all the proper channels, but he was denied."
Bruntmyer described her own efforts to rescue her son from the torture he was now enduring on a regular basis. When she called the warden to plead for her son, he told her Rodney needed to grow up. "This happens every day; learn to deal with it. It's no big deal," this callous official instructed the distraught mother.
Desperate, Rodney started violating prison rules in order to be segregated from the regular prison population. Finally, he was put in segregation and allowed one 10-minute phone call home in which he tearfully told his mother that he was "emotionally and mentally destroyed."
"That was the last time I heard his voice," Bruntmyer said. "On the night of Jan. 26, 1996, my son hanged himself in his cell. He was 17 and afraid, and ashamed and hopeless. He laid in a coma for the next four months before he died."
No one knows how many Rodneys there are among America's two million incarcerated men and women. One recent study of prisons in the Midwestern United States, by University of South Dakota professor Cindy Struckman-Johnson found that nearly 10 percent of male prisoners had been raped, and an additional 10 percent had been pressured by other inmates into having sex. Juveniles serving terms in adult facilities are five times more likely to be assaulted than those housed with other juveniles and are nearly eight times more likely to commit suicide.
Prison rape is a national disgrace. It can -- and must -- be stopped.
The Prison Rape Reduction Act -- which has already passed a House subcommittee and will be taken up by the full House Judiciary Committee in July -- is a good first step. The bill is the brainchild of former Reagan administration official Michael Horowitz, who worked to put together a broad coalition of supporters that includes leaders from Evangelical Christian groups to civil libertarians and human rights activists. The House version of the bill, co-sponsored by two Virginia congressmen, Republican Frank Wolf and Democrat Bobby Scott, will authorize a federal study to document the extent of the problem, and create standards and incentives for corrections officers to detect and prevent sexual abuse in prison.
People who commit serious crimes deserve to be punished. But a prison sentence should never condemn a man or woman to sexual torture. Yet all too many prison officials turn a blind eye to the sexual predation that takes place in their institutions -- and, in the case of female prisons, male guards are often the sexual predators. Prison rapes won't stop until ordinary Americans insist that prison officials be held accountable for what goes on in jail.
The Prison Rape Reduction Act is too late to help Rodney Hulin. But maybe his story will help save others.