Sexual Assaults Behind Bars

Sexual Assaults Behind Bars

Sexual violence among inmates was rediscovered and documented as a serious problem decades ago (see Lockwood, 1980). The rape of weaker inmates by stronger prisoners, once a taboo topic, has been written about and depicted in movies for decades (see MacNamara, 1983). Rapes are periodically pic- tured in movies about prison life—sometimes

mockingly—and are tacitly condoned as an addi- tional form of deterrence in warnings issued by hardened convicts to delinquents in “Scared Straight”–type programs. Older and stronger “wolves” compel younger and weaker inmates to be their sex slaves in return for protection from gang rapes that would stigmatize them as easy pick- ings and as the “girl” of the institution.

Several court cases in the 1980s and 1990s raised the issue of how female inmates were sexu- ally exploited by male guards. In the late 1990s and the early years of the new century, advocacy groups charged that the authorities showed deliberate indifference to the systematic sexual abuse and exploitation that stronger prisoners imposed on weaker ones who had no avenue for escape. Their investigations also unearthed evidence that corrections officers and other staff sexually abused vulnerable delinquents and female inmates. The groups’ reports called for a greater emphasis on pre- vention strategies to stop prison rape, including more carefully classifying inmates to cellblocks and cells by risk levels, and increasing the size of the custodial staff. Other recommendations focused on improving means of redress, including safer report- ing procedures, and stepped up arrests and prosecu- tions (Mariner, 2001; and Fink, 2011).

But it was not until 2003 that those who endured sexual assaults while incarcerated were rediscovered officially when Congress unanimously passed the Prison Rape Reduction Act. Public Law 108-79 promulgated a zero-tolerance policy and mandated that preventing, detecting, and prosecut- ing sexual attacks become a top priority in each federal, state, and local correctional institution in order to protect the Eighth Amendment rights of individuals subjected to the government’s care and custody. Wardens were put on notice that they would be held responsible for failures to reduce sexual assaults behind bars (“What sheriffs need to know…,” 2004).

Acknowledging that there was insufficient solid research and data about the extent and seriousness of sexual aggression behind bars, the legislation assigned the task of administering a survey to the Bureau of Justice Statistics to determine the

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frequency and consequences of inmate-on-inmate sexual contacts, both nonconsensual and consen- sual. The National Prison Rape Elimination Com- mission’s first national survey in 2007, based on a representative sample of state and federal prison inmates, yielded an estimate that nearly 5 percent (about 70,000 individuals) had endured sexual vio- lence during a single year (NPREC, 2008). During 2008–2009, 3 percent of jail inmates and over 4 percent of prison inmates alleged they had been sexually victimized one or more times within a year, either by another inmate or a member of the staff. Female inmates, whether in jail or prison, were more than twice as likely as males to be sexu- ally victimized. The male inmates of jails and pris- ons were more likely than females to have been sexually abused or assaulted within the first 24 hours after admission (Beck and Harrison, 2010).

The most vulnerable of all inmates are teen- agers confined in juvenile institutions. Over 12 per- cent of these young prisoners reported experiencing one or more incidents of sexual victimization in the course of a year. Almost 3 percent said the assailant was another young inmate, while about 10 percent claimed the perpetrator was an adult member of the staff (sometimes a woman). Homosexual boys and teenage girls suffered the most victimizations, and the sexual violence in some facilities was much worse than in others, according to a National Sur- vey of Youth in Custody carried out in 195 facilities during 2008–2009 (Beck et al., 2010).

But determining the true scope of the problem is difficult. Many inmates conceal their ordeals from the authorities because they fear retaliation or don’t want to be labeled as a “snitch,” since maintaining confi- dentiality behind bars is extremely difficult. Other prisoners may lodge false accusations in order to get an enemy into serious trouble, or to justify a transfer to a more favorable setting. The high turnover in jail populations makes it very difficult to make accurate measurements, but short-term detention facilities are suspected to be more dangerous places than prisons where inmates are confined for years.

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