In prisons across the country, gangs are selling their fellow inmates into sex trafficking in order to increase their power and profits.
Ex-convict Scott Howard, a survivor of the prison sex trade, described being smuggled from prison to prison over a two-year period. His “owners” — members of a white supremacist gang — sold him to a group of Norteño gang members, who forced Howard to prostitute himself in exchange for $7 to $20 per sexual encounter, an abuse that was repeated over the course of many years.
“The situation is an epidemic. Dozens of us were being forced into prostitution, and I can assure you that as I speak there are other (prisoners) who are being forced into prostitution. The last time I was sold (for sex), the 'client' paid with four boxes of cookies. It's horrible what goes on, and in prison no one comes forward to help us!” said Howard, who was released from prison in December 2010, after serving 10 years on fraud charges. He now works as a reformer, seeking solutions that will protect prisoners from sexual abuse.
The sex trade is dominated by national criminal organizations such as the Mexican Mafia, the Sureños and the Norteños, who sell young prisoners for sex in order to finance their activities, according to an annual report issued by the National Center on Gang Intelligence.
The report, despite participation from local, state and federal agencies, does not include statistics on the overall scope of sex trafficking networks in prisons.
According to Howard, the underworld of prison prostitution networks range in size from prison to prison. Within a three-month period, Howard said, he was transferred to five different correctional facilities within the state of Colorado, and at each one, new gang members were awaiting his arrival so they could continue selling his body for sex.
Lovisa Stannow, executive director of Just Detention International (JDT), an organization that advocates for the protection of prisoners and seeks to eliminate sexual assault behind bars, said a key part of the problem is the secrecy under which detention centers operate throughout the country.
“U.S. prisons are more closed to external and independent monitors than anywhere else in the world, which is really troubling because this country accounts for about a quarter of the global prison population,” said Stannow.
A number of prison sex-trafficking cases have reached the offices of JDT, which causes Stannow to worry that the problem is not an isolated trend.
“When someone is in prison, the government has a responsibility to protect them, and it’s regrettable that this isn't happening. Prisoners come to feel they are no longer part of society, which is very dangerous because many return home and the extreme abuses they've suffered end up impacting their communities,” Stannow explained.
According to court documents, when Howard reported the incidents of abuse, Colorado correctional officers responded by saying that the abuse occurred because Howard was a “drama queen.”
“I find it ironic that while (the U.S. government) spends thousands of dollars to eradicate slavery around the world, it does not provide the resources to eliminate the problem it has within its own prisons,” said Howard.
“It got to a point where I was surviving on crackers and water, being sold over and over again… The physical and psychological abuse becomes so extreme that you begin to think it's better not to be alive,” said Howard, who continues to see a psychologist to heal the emotional damage left by the outrages he suffered.
The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), approved in 2003, requires that all prisons adopt a zero tolerance policy for sexual abuse. The law, however, is still far from meeting its target.
“Sexual abuse in prison is preventable, but we have to fight to make it a reality,” concluded Stannow.