In January 2010, Scott Howard, a 39-year-old federal prisoner, made his way briskly into a hearing room in the Robert F. Kennedy Justice Building in Washington, D.C. He was neatly dressed in blazer, slacks and tie, and quite nervous about what he was about to do. He was determined to not think about it too much, to just get it over with — like so much else that he’d been through over the past few years.
The room was teeming with Department of Justice attorneys, law enforcement agents and corrections officials. Not exactly Howard’s kind of crowd; he’d tried to tell his story to such people before, only to be labeled a liar and a whiner. But the participants also included members of Congress, medical professionals, prison activists, counselors and sexual-assault survivors.
They’d all come to take part in a “listening session” on the wishfully titled Prison Rape Elimination Act. Passed in 2003, PREA created a national commission to study the causes and costs of sexual assault behind bars and to come up with federal policies to attack the problem. Seven years and several blown deadlines later, backers are still waiting for United States Attorney General Eric Holder to adopt new standards incorporating the commission’s findings.
Howard had been invited to join the discussion because of his experiences behind bars — in particular, the three nightmarish years he’d spent in Colorado state prisons, doing time for fraud. It would be the first time he’d ever discussed his ordeal publicly.
When his name was called, he went to the microphone, trying to keep his hands steady as he studied the pages in front of him. “Thank you for allowing me to participate,” he began.
He explained that, although living in a halfway house, he was still in the custody of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons: “Before I was taken into BOP custody, however, I served time in the Colorado Department of Corrections, and it was there that I was repeatedly raped, assaulted and extorted by members of a large, notorious gang.”
The gang was the 211 Crew, a white supremacist group found in many Colorado prisons. 211 leaders pressured him for money and demanded that he help them in an ambitious $300,000 fraud scheme; their threats soon turned into physical attacks, then sexual assaults. He was forced to perform oral sex on gang members and anally raped.
“I spent well over a year trying to get protection by writing to officials,” he said. “My efforts to report were mostly fruitless — and often put me at greater risk. Because I am openly gay, officials blamed me for the attacks. They said as a homosexual I should expect to be targeted by one gang or another.”
Howard didn’t tell the whole squalid story. He didn’t mention the evidence of staff involvement with the gang that made his efforts to seek protection even dicier. He didn’t go into how, once he finally started “naming names,” as prison investigators demanded, they accused him of crying rape to cover up his own criminal activities. He barely referred to his last day as a Colorado prisoner, when, he says, he was put in a cell with one of the gang leaders and sexually assaulted again. Despite being a bare summary, the statement was still graphic — and powerful. At times his voice choked up, but Howard kept reading.
When it was over, he sat in the gallery and listened to other testimony by experts and survivors. Then the DOJ officials began asking questions, and some of the questions were directed at Howard. He was astonished. They’d actually paid attention. They’d even taken notes.
“That was very important,” he says now. “Having people listening to me and asking questions — it made me feel like I was being taken seriously at last.”
A lot of people are taking Howard seriously these days. Since his talk in Washington a year ago, he’s emerged as a highly visible “survivor speaker” for Just Detention International, a nonprofit active in the campaign to stop sexual abuse in prison, and a caustic critic of Colorado’s DOC and its treatment of rape victims. Last summer he settled a civil-rights lawsuit against several DOC officials for $165,000.
The settlement came as Howard’s attorneys were seeking a hearing to investigate how and why the Colorado Attorney General’s Office had failed for years to produce a critical document in the case — a 2005 entry in Howard’s inmate file that corroborated his claims of seeking help and being ignored. The document, which only surfaced after a private law firm got involved in the defense of a second Howard lawsuit, also casts doubt on the veracity of several sworn affidavits filed by case managers and supervisors claiming that Howard never told them that he was being threatened and extorted.
Winning his case was a major victory for Howard. Finding the proof that he wasn’t lying was even greater vindication, though. Behind bars, all kinds of crimes are committed in secret, and prisoners soon learn to keep quiet about them. Exposing the most heinous violations can be almost impossible when staff attitudes about rape and homosexuality are as convoluted as those of the predators — and Howard says that’s what made the Colorado prison system particularly dangerous for him.