Sexual Assault in Prisons

American prisons are notorious for subjecting prisoners to the risk of sexual violence. Yet, shockingly little is done to stop sexual assault in our prisons, and the public remains not just unconcerned, but sickeningly amused by the problem. Think about how often prison rapes are the punchline of a joke in movies or on television.  How can that be okay? It’s almost as if society has decided that being sexually violated is an acceptable part of criminal punishment. That deplorable attitude must change.

First, let’s get a handle on what the problem looks like. According to the Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), roughly 200,000 prisoners are sexually abused each year (though that figure comes from May 2013, and all trends show that since the BJS tracking began, prison sexual assault rates have been steadily increasing each year). Some might be surprised to learn that only about half of the inmates reporting sexual assault in prison complain of inmate-on-inmate violence; the other roughly half of the reported sexual assaults are perpetrated by prison staff. What those figures mean is that inmates cannot rely on the prison guards – the people whose job it is to keep them safe – not to sexually assault them, much less to protect them from sexual predators.

According to BJS statistics, certain populations are particularly vulnerable targets for sexual assault, such as younger inmates, LGBT prisoners, and inmates with mental illness. Also, those who have already been sexually victimized become prominent repeat targets, and inmates who try to speak out about a sexual assault are often subjected to retaliation or punishment themselves, rather than medical treatment or counseling. For instance, of the prisoners reporting sexual assault by prison staff, BJS statistics show that less than 4% are administered rape kits or given HIV/STD testing (standard medical procedures for rape victims on the outside), but about 46% are transferred or placed in solitary confinement.

With little medical treatment or trauma counseling, it is not surprising that inmates who are sexually assaulted have a tougher time with re-entry when they are released from prison. They also have a high risk of contracting HIV or other STD’s and a high incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, addiction, and self-destructive behaviors. Sexual assault during incarceration is considered a human rights violation internationally, and subjecting inmates to prison rape violates any notion of justice. If you have any doubt, or if you need to personalize the statistics and numbers, Just Detention International publishes moving, horrifying first-hand accounts of prison rape survivor stories on their website.

In 2003, the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) was passed to prevent, detect, and respond to the problem of sexual assault in prisons. But to date (twelve years later), only 11 states are fully complying with the PREA. In a thoughtful article entitled, “Why Americans Don’t Care About Prison Rape,” Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig explores why the PREA’s requirements have been met with such a collective shrug of indifference. She posits that movies, television, and news reports treating prison rape as either a glib joke or a rite of passage on the way to prisoner remorse and rehabilitation are responsible for this callous attitude. Prison rape jokes appear everywhere from mainstream television to children’s movies.  Additionally, with the rise of for-profit prisons, violence and medical neglect are simply becoming the norm. With for-profit, private prisons cutting the resources necessary for prisoner safety and well being, and facing no consequences (except for astronomical increases in their stock prices), overall violence has increased at an alarming rate, including sexual assaults.

It is deeply disturbing to see our culture exhibit such indifference about sexual assault in prison. It’s as if we forget that the man or woman or child victimized in prison or juvenile detention is somebody’s brother/father/son/sister/mother/daughter/cousin/friend. Although arguably someone who commits credit card fraud theft, or what have you  should go to prison, accepting rape as part of the punishment for any crime is simply wrong.

I end with several of Just Detention International‘s many Portraits of Courage because the brave people portrayed by photographer James  Stenson make this case far better than I can:

Jailed for an act of civil disobedience in 1974, Tom was locked in an overcrowded cell where he was beaten and raped for 24 hours. The inmates attacked him after guards told them Tom was a child molester and promised special privileges for ‘teaching him a lesson.’ Despite suffering long-term emotional and mental trauma, Tom later became a leader in the fight against prisoner rape, including serving as President of Just Detention International.
Bryson (formerly Kendell) 1963-2010, was raped by more than 25 other inmates over the course of nine months during his incarceration at an Arkansas state prison. He contracted HIV as a result of the attacks. Although he repeatedly reported the attacks, prison officials failed to provide Mr. Martel, who weighed only 123 pounds at the time, a safe housing environment. He lived in Michigan.



Michelle, a transgender woman, was arrested in late 2006 and placed in the men’s wing of the Los Angeles County Jail. At the time of her arrest, she had very limited mobility. During Michelle’s confinement, she was denied the use of her wheelchair. Other detainees were prohibited from helping Michelle and she was forced to move about without assistance, falling on multiple occasions. One day while in the shower, she was surrounded and threatened with rape by four other inmates. The attempted sexual assault was interrupted when Michelle’s partner entered the shower and was able to fend off the would-be assailants. Michelle passed away in 2013.
Still in high school, Chance was 18 years old when he was arrested on drug possession charges. He was repeatedly raped, targeted in part because of his youth. Chance’s struggles with homelessness, drug addiction, and mental health show how the devastation of sexual assault continues for years after survivors are released from detention.


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