Male prison rape survivors speak out

South African prisons are notorious the world over for their endemic sexual abuse. Despite this, prisoner rape is not well understood by the South African public and government, and does not receive the serious attention it urgently needs. This is according to a report compiled by Emily Nagisa Keehn, policy development and advocacy manager at Sonke Gender Justice and Sasha Gear, programme director at Just Detention International, South Africa.

Sonke, Just Detention International – South Africa, and NICRO have partnered to increase public awareness of sexual abuse in prison. Three men came forward to share their stories about surviving rape in prison. Vincent*, Francois and Thabo* are the first South African survivors of prisoner rape to tell their stories in this way.

Vincent* tells how he was raped by two gang members in an overcrowded cell in a Western Cape facility while awaiting trial. This was his first sexual experience. Vincent asked for help from nurses, wardens, priests, social workers and even a magistrate, who he says did nothing to help him – some telling him to expect this treatment in prison. He only received medical attention three years later, when he was sentenced. He then learned that he was HIV-positive as a result of the rape. Vincent has called on the department of correctional services to take measures to stop this from happening to others and encouraged survivors to speak up.

Watch Vincent* tell his story:

Francois was raped violently twice in an Eastern Cape correctional centre. He reported the rapes to the warders, but never received counselling or support. In despair, Francois attempted suicide. After being released, he sued the department of correctional services, and after 10 years he accepted a settlement offer based on the promise that they would take action to stop inmates from being raped. When nothing changed, Francois decided to tell his story.

Watch Francois tell his story:

Thabo*, from Limpopo, went to prison when he was 21 years old and was raped repeatedly during the decade he spent behind bars. He attempted suicide but survived, unlike three other inmates he knew, who were raped and then took their own lives. Experiencing serious trauma and shame, Thabo struggles to interact with people. He says he left prison with HIV. The biggest weight he has carried is that nobody in his family knows what happened to him.

Watch Thabo tell his story:

In 2013, the South African department of correctional services adopted the Policy to Address the Sexual Abuse of Inmates in DCS facilities, which tackles the problem in similar ways to the Prison Rape Elimination Act in the United States. This was a historic and important step towards ending prisoner rape in South Africa, but the main work – its implementation – lies ahead. This requires political will and the promotion of public attitudes that uphold the constitutional right of prisoners to humane treatment, free of sexual abuse, says the report.

Thanks to these brave men, South African prisoner rape survivors have, for the first time, been given a human face. Their stories underscore the urgent need for action to ensure respect for prisoners’ human rights and to prevent the ripples that the sexual abuse of prisoners causes in our society as a whole. Sonke and Just Detention International have warned that as most prisoners do not stay behind bars for life, the ill health, harm and trauma they experience affects the communities and families to which they return.

South African prisoners experience some of the highest rates of HIV in the country and rape fuels transmission between inmates. Survivors of rape require urgent support to access the counselling and medical care they need to heal.

A critical first step to tackling sexual abuse in prison is to foster understanding of the issue by challenging dismissive and ridiculing public attitudes towards prisoner rape, and building social and political recognition of prisoner rape as the devastating and violent crime that it is.

* Not their real names.

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