Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us



The Persistent Problem of Sexual Assault in Prison

• October 18, 2013 • 6:00 AM


Abuse continues, and oversight is getting harder.

A national survey involving hundreds of thousands of inmates of jails, prisons, and detention centers throughout the U.S. has brought researchers to one undeniable conclusion: Sexual assault in prisons is a shockingly widespread problem.

New editions of the National Inmate Survey and the National Survey of Youth in Custody were released this year by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and analyzed by David Kaiser and Lovisa Stannow in an essay, “The Shame of Our Prisons: New Evidence,” for the current issue of The New York Review of Books. The Review may seem a slightly unusual venue for such a topic, but Kaiser and Stannow, who are both affiliated with the non-profit organization Just Detention International, have been covering the surveys’ findings for the magazine for the past three years.

“As recently as five years ago, American corrections officials almost uniformly denied that rape in prison was a widespread problem,” write Kaiser and Stannow. “But all this has changed. What we have now that we didn’t then is good data.”

These numbers may seem low when taken as a percentage out of 100. But a consideration of just how many people are currently imprisoned in America today reveals the scope of the problem.

That good data points to a dark reality for thousands of inmates—especially those in juvenile detention facilities. Sixteen- and 17-year-old inmates are often held in separate sections within adult prisons, but younger inmates are typically kept in different facilities altogether, dedicated to juveniles. The have found that corruption, unprofessionalism, and abuse is more widespread in the juvenile facilities than it is in adult jails and prisons. Specifically, Kaiser and Stannow said, “the new National Survey of Youth in Custody found that minors held in juvenile detention suffered sexual abuse at twice the rate of their peers in adult facilities.”

The abuse and assault in these examples came more often from the staff than from fellow inmates, according to the survey. Almost eight percent of all survey-takers in juvenile detention facilities said they had had sexual contact with a member of the staff. This is always categorized as abuse (and illegal in every state), even in cases where the inmate says the sex is consensual, because of the inherent power imbalance at play—not to mention the age difference in these cases. Perhaps most surprisingly, of those cases, 90 percent of them involved teenage boys and female adult staff.

Adult facilities don’t escape these problems, either. The latest surveys indicate that, while 9.5 percent of juvenile inmates reported sexual abuse within the past year, 3.2 percent of inmates in adult jails and four percent of inmates in state and federal prisons reported abuse in the same time period. These numbers may seem low when taken as a percentage out of 100. But a consideration of just how many people are currently imprisoned in America today—in jails, state and federal prisons, in immigration detention facilities, in military detention facilities, and on and on—reveals the scope of the problem. The lead author of the studies, the statistician Allen J. Beck, has extrapolated from his results that, in the latest year he measured, there were nearly 200,000 inmates suffering sexual assault and abuse.

One bright spot in the surveys’ results was that there are some institutions that don’t seem to suffer from the same evils: Inmates in a dozen large juvenile facilities located in Colorado, Kentucky, Missouri, and Oregon reported no sexual abuse at all. But still, the facilities that have previously shown the most rampant abuse are continuing to show it.

“The consistency of the findings from these surveys is overwhelming,” Kaiser and Stannow continue. “The more closely one looks at these studies, the more persuasive their findings become. Very few corrections professionals now publicly dispute them.”

One of the most disturbing aspects of Kaiser and Stannow’s summary, aside from the statistics themselves, is the fact that the statistics are getting harder to collect. The National Inmate Surveys were set up as a condition of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which passed in 2003. But not all facilities are actually required by law to allow access to the researchers. (“Jails are not under federal authority and officials at some of them, apparently foreseeing that they would perform badly and reluctant to have their mismanagement exposed, have simply refused to let their inmates take the survey,” write Kaiers and Stannow.) The authors report that every year, the number of facilities refusing to participate has doubled.

The troubling feedback loop here is obvious: As more abuse is exposed, more facilities will bow out. As more abuse-prone facilities bow out, the overall results will get more skewed, the studies will either become devalued or they will be used as evidence that sexual abuse isn’t a widespread and persistent problem for inmates in the U.S. Clearly, more consistent and legally-mandated oversight is necessary here. The worst-performing jails and prisons are, of course, the ones that most need to confront what’s going wrong, and to figure out how to address the situation, now.

Lauren Kirchner
Lauren Kirchner is the Web editor of The Baffler. She has written for the Columbia Journalism Review, Capital New York, Slate, The Awl, The Hairpin, and many others. Follow her on Twitter @lkirchner.

More From Lauren Kirchner

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.

November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”

November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.

November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.

November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.

November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.

November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.

November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.

November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.

November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.

November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.

November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.

November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.

November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.

November 20 • 5:00 AM

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn’t vanish as we age—it just moves.

November 20 • 4:00 AM

The FBI’s Dangerous Misrepresentation of Encryption Law

The FBI no more deserves a direct line to your data than it deserves to intercept your mail at the post office. But it doesn’t want you to know that.

November 20 • 2:00 AM

Brain Drain Is Economic Development

It may be hard to see unless you shift your focus from places to people, but both destination and source can benefit from “brain drain.”

November 19 • 9:00 PM

Gays Rights Are Great, but Ixnay on the PDAs

New research suggests both heterosexuals and gay men are uncomfortable with public same-sex kissing.

November 19 • 4:00 PM

The Red Cross’ Own Employees Doubt the Charity’s Ethics

Survey results obtained by ProPublica also show a crisis of trust in the charity’s senior leadership.

November 19 • 2:00 PM

Egg Freezing Isn’t the Feminist Issue You Think It Is

New benefits being offered by Apple and Facebook probably aren’t about discouraging women from becoming mothers at a “natural” age.

Follow us

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

Online Brain Exercises Are Probably Useless

Even under the guidance of a specialist trainer, computer-based brain exercises have only modest benefits, a new analysis shows.

The Big One

One company, Comcast, will control up to 40 percent of Internet service coverage in the U.S., and 19 of the top 20 cable markets, if a proposed merger with Time Warner Cable is approved by regulators. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.