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New Statewide Data Show Prison Rape a Widespread Problem

Over a fifth of male prisoners are sexually victimized behind bars according to a newly released survey of an entire state's prison system. A summary of results from the spring, 1994 survey, which covered all four Nebraska prisons and was conducted by University of South Dakota psychology professor Cindy Struckman-Johnson, was obtained from inside the prison by the Nebraska Civil Liberties Union and released by the Stop Prisoner Rape, Inc, a national group, after verification.

According to the 5-page summary of the survey results, 22.3% of the males indicated they had been "pressured or forced to have sexual contact against your will." The figure for the woman's prison was 7.7%. Most of the victims provided written accounts of the incidents.

This was the first comprehensive survey on sexual assault in a prison since 1980 and the first ever to look at an entire state, said Stephen Donaldson, president of Stop Prisoner Rape. Donaldson said that extrapolating the Nebraska results indicated an annual sexual victimization of 200,000 adults in the nation's prisons, including 120,000 completed rapes of adult males. Adding a separate extrapolation for the nation's local jails and an estimate for juvenile institutions, Donaldson arrived at an estimated total of 359,000 annual male prisoner sexual assault victims (242,000 of whom were actually penetrated), plus around five thousand female victims. Because of very high repeat rates, he said, this amounted to over 80,000 sexual assaults a day behind bars. The national prisoner population, including jails and juvenile institutions, is nearly one and a half million, he said. For comparison, a 1993 household survey by the U S Justice Department yielded an estimate of 160,000 completed rapes in the community, Donaldson noted, though he termed it a likely underestimate. He said that published studies had shown that nonviolent and less serious offenders tended to be singled out for sexual assaults by more hardened convicts.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously June 6, 1994 in Farmer v. Brennan that prisoners could bring civil rights suits against prison officials who do nothing to prevent rapes under the "cruel and unusual" punishment clause of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.

Most of the victims were heterosexual; white, were repeatedly victimized, and reported "serious bad effects" from the rapes, but told no one about it, according to the survey summary, which was made available to Nebraska prisoners under an agreement with the researcher, though prison officials sought to prevent it from reaching the public, Donaldson said. Over five hundred filled out and mailed questionnaires to Prof. Struckman-Johnson, who tabulated the results and provided summaries for distribution to the prisoners under an agreement with the state Department of Corrections.

"The rape situation is likely to be even worse in states more urbanized than Nebraska," Donaldson commented. "This is the best scientific data ever collected on rape in prison, which can amount to a death penalty in the age of AIDS," he said. Donaldson noted that White House AIDS Czar Patricia Fleming recently termed the rape issue a "critical one" in correspondence with him and pledged to work with the Justice Department and federal Bureau of Prisons on AIDS prevention efforts.

Most of the victims added written accounts of the "worst incidents" to the standardized questions and answers. Victimization figures turned out to be close to estimates made by both prisoners and staff. A little over a quarter of the victims said they were only victimized once, two- thirds indicated repeated victimization, and the rest did not specify.

Asked to name the most serious act involved, over half of the males pointed to anal penetration, 8% listed forced oral sex, 14 percent "genital contact" and an equal number specified attempts. Half the incidents involved a single perpetrator, while a tenth involved groups of six or more assailants. Prison staff was reportedly involved in a fifth of the incidents. Force was used in over three-quarters of these incidents, and weapons in over one-quarter, and injuries resulted in nearly a third.

Among the aftereffects of the incidents were depression (reported by 62% of the victims), flashbacks or nightmares (42%), suicidal thoughts (38%) and lasting physical injuries (17%), according to the summary. Most of the victims indicated they had told no one about the incident, while about a fifth had disclosed it to counselors, clergy, or prison staff.

Asked to suggest solutions, prisoners most favored keeping likely targets segregated from predators, followed by sexual visits and single cells; staff members (who filled out a separate survey questionnaire) favored more staff hiring, followed by separation of targets from predators and single cells. Prisoners did not generally list "protective custody" as a solution, though staff did. Donaldson said this discrepancy was significant, since prison administrations rely on "protective custody" (a form of administrative segregation) while the prisoners most directly affected, along with this organization, believe it to be ineffective. "Protective custody," he said, "in reality punishes the victim for reporting assaults to the authorities, and often does not even protect them."

Both staff and prisoners agreed in favoring stricter penalties for perpetrators and programs to teach prisoners about rape prevention.

Nebraska's women's prison was included in the survey, with 3 of the 39 women responding stating they had been sexually victimized in that prison. Donaldson said this was the first data on female victimization behind bars ever obtained. "Genital touching" was reported involved in two cases and an attempt in the third.

The most important reason why victims did not tell anyone about the incident was fear of retaliation by the perpetrator(s). Other reasons given were a feeling that staff would not believe them, fear of a misconduct report, aversion to "protective custody," shame and embarrassment, and the belief that nothing would be done.

Stop Prisoner Rape also released a new edition of its statistical report to take the Nebraska study into account.

The survey, which was conducted in March and April, 1994, was financed by the researchers themselves. The prisoner response rate was about 30%, considered excellent for a survey of this type. The survey did not attempt to elicit information about the extent of voluntary sexual conduct.

For more information contact: Stop Prisoner Rape, Inc (SPR), P.O. Box 2713, Manhattanville, New York, NY 10027-8817 (212) 663-5562.

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