MINEOLA, N.Y. (AP) - On his first day in a Michigan prison for robbing a photo store with a toy gun, 17-year-old T.J. Parsell was dragged into an empty cell and gang-raped.
Now the 54-year-old activist and filmmaker has created videos instructing newcomers to New York state prisons on how to protect themselves from sexual assault.
Similar videos have been produced since the passage of the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act, but Parsell says his are the first to look at the issue from the prisoners’ perspective, with actual prisoners talking about how to prevent such attacks.
“I’ve always thought that if the men somehow take this issue on themselves and declare it’s not going to happen, then it isn’t going to happen,” said Parsell, a film student at New York University who has spent much of his life since the attack working to prevent it from happening to others.
“Inmates are more apt to listen to other inmates than they are to staff,” he said. “The primary intention with this video is to start influencing the culture within the prison.”
The U.S. Department of Justice says at least 216,000 prisoners across the country were raped or sexually abused behind bars in 2011, and it cautions that the number is likely low because prison rapes are seldom reported.
Parsell made two videos, one for men and one for women. They are expected to be shown in New York state prisons as part of new inmate orientation once the state obtains final approval from the Justice Department, which financed the project as part of its PREA initiative. Because approval is pending, neither spokespeople for the state prisons nor the Justice Department would comment. It is not clear when, or if, the videos will be released.
But that doesn’t mean they haven’t already been seen.
After being posted online last month by The Marshall Project, a nonprofit journalism group, they have been viewed nearly 300,000 times. Another website that posted the video claimed over 460,000 hits.
A key message of Parsell’s videos is that the era of prisoners ganging up and sexually assaulting other prisoners is largely a thing of the past, replaced by more subtle “grooming” of inmates with gifts and favors. The inmates advise newcomers to keep to themselves and not accept unsolicited gifts from inmates who appear too friendly; they also emphasize prison rape is not inevitable.
“Lay low; stay out of trouble. You’ll be fine,” one longtime inmate advises.
The videos also advise to report misconduct whenever it occurs. Inmates in both of Parsell’s videos emphasize: “It’s not snitching when it comes to sexual safety.”
Jan Lastocy, who was raped by a staff member at a prison in Michigan while serving 18 months for attempted embezzlement in 1998, said many inmates would rather not speak up and so statistics on prison sex assaults must be viewed skeptically.
Lastocy, a board member of Los Angeles-based anti-rape group Just Detention International, said she told no one about her ordeal - being raped several times a week for at least six months - until many years later.
“How many people were in my situation that didn’t feel safe to come forward?” she asked. “If they would have asked me, I would have said, ‘Nope, it’s not happening to me.’ The biggest reason that so many inmates don’t report it is they fear nobody’s going to believe them.”
Some are dubious whether inmates will actually be empowered to report incidents of sexual misconduct, fearing retaliation, even from correction officers.
The 2013 Bureau of Justice Statistics report found that staff was at least as likely to commit sexual abuse as inmates. The study found that among state and federal prisoners, 2 percent reported an incident involving another inmate, while 2.4 percent reported being abused by facility staff.
The men’s and women’s videos differ somewhat; the women’s video mentions that inmates should be wary of attacks from staff, but the men’s video omits any mention of them.
New York prison officials did not respond to several requests for information about the number of staff accused of sexually assaulting inmates.
Lara Stemple, a UCLA law professor and former executive director of Stop Prisoner Rape, which changed its name in 2008 to Just Detention International, another organization seeking to stem prison sex attacks, said it’s important to address the possibility of staff involvement.
“They need to make another video on what to do if staff is abusing you,” she said.
Jack Beck of the nonprofit Correctional Association of New York believes prison administrators are truly committed to reducing sexual violence behind bars, but he is skeptical that rank-and-file officers will protect inmates.
“The bigger issue is: Will there be a response? Will you be protected?” Beck said. “I believe the likelihood of retaliation against someone who speaks up is very high.”
Jesse Lerner-Kinglake, communications director of Just Detention International, said simply showing a video is not a fail-safe way to meet PREA goals. His organization released a video last year that offers prevention advice from correction officers and others.
“It works best in a context where facility staff is making it work,” he said. “They’re just not hitting play and walking out of the room.”
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