Tom Cahill’s Long Road (March 30, 2005)

Although he wasn’t at all street-smart or jail-savvy when he was arrested for civil disobedience in the 1960s, Tom Cahill got a quick lesson in incarceration as he was led to his Texas jail cell nearly four decades ago. 

“One of the prisoners turned and yelled out ‘fresh meat.’ I turned and looked at the guard, and he was smiling. After lights out, that’s when it started.” 

Among the 30 men packed into a cell built for two dozen prisoners was a small group of sexual predators who would spend the next 24 hours savagely beating and raping him while the others pretended not to notice. 

Two weeks after the attack, Cahill was released from jail and began to harden his face into the mask of a man who was all right with the world. He married, started a business, and settled in Mendocino County, where his corrosive rage slowly devoured his marriage, his health, and, for a while, his sanity. 

Tormented by flashbacks and nightmares, he began baiting the cops and the feds, and bouncing in and out of jails and mental hospitals. He would pace the floor for hours or jab at a punching bag in the early morning hours until he dropped from exhaustion. 

“I would go into these silent rages,” he said. “I would scream in silence.” 

His fury has dampened with the passage of time, but a mention of the “War on Drugs” and the more than two million inmates warehoused in U.S. prisons, jails, and immigration cells at any given time makes his anger flare hotter than ever. 

“I think the war on drugs is a total fraud,” Cahill said from his home in Fort Bragg. “It has nothing to do with public health and everything to do with politics. Prison is a bigger threat to health than marijuana use.” 

Often unschooled in the ways of prison life, nonviolent drug offenders are among the most vulnerable to custodial sexual assault. And drug offenders make up a huge proportion of our nation’s burgeoning prison population — one in four state prison inmates and nearly three in five federal prisoners are serving time on drug charges. 

Although many prison officials maintain that Cahill’s assault behind bars is the exception rather than the rule, research suggests otherwise. One study of Midwestern prisons found that one in five male prisoners has been pressured or coerced into sex, and one in ten has been raped. In one women’s facility, more than a quarter of the women studied said they have been pressured into sex. 

Many Americans turn their backs on our nation’s incarceration crisis, believing it will never affect them or anyone they know. But our government’s own statistics belie that assumption. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, one in 15 Americans will serve time in prison during their lifetime if current incarceration rates remain unchecked. For men of color, imprisonment is even more likely — one in ten Latino men and one in three black men will serve time. Chances are, most Americans eventually will find someone close to their heart behind bars. 

Violent, overcrowded prisons affect those on the outside in other ways. More than 95 percent of all inmates eventually are released into our communities. Prisoner rape survivors carry the baggage of their assaults when they are paroled. Rates of HIV and other infectious disease are markedly higher behind bars. Many prisoner rape survivors suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological maladies, and many continue the spiraling cycle of violence they learned behind bars. 

Stop Prisoner Rape (SPR), a national human-rights organization dedicated to eliminating sexual violence against men, women, and youth behind bars, is working to end the culture of sexual brutality that permeates our prisons. 

Although inmate sexual abuse once was a topic many Americans wanted to keep behind prison walls, attitudes are slowly changing. In 2003, the Prison Rape Elimination Act was signed into law, the first-ever federal legislation dealing with sexual assault behind bars. 

But there is a lot more work to be done. In addition to pushing for government accountability, SPR seeks to change society’s attitudes toward prisoner rape and to promote survivors’ access to vital resources. 

One groundbreaking SPR project will feature prisoners of the drug war and three-strikes laws. Stories from Inside will be built around first-hand accounts of nonviolent drug offenders who suffered sexual abuse behind bars. By telling their stories, these survivors will help the public see them as they are — as our sons and daughters and brothers and sisters. The public relations campaign that will accompany the project’s release will help to shatter the perception that drug offenders “get what they deserve” while in prison. 

For Cahill, 68, who served in the Air Force for four years in the 1950s before embarking on his campaign of civil disobedience, it has taken half his life to work through the pain of his jail-cell rape. 

He later was told by a cellmate that the guards promised an extra ration of Jello to his attackers in exchange for teaching him a lesson. 

“At first I felt shame and humiliation. Later, I realized that it was not my shame — it was my country’s shame. As a veteran, I feel my country betrayed me. America has a lot to answer for.” 

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