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Rape Behind Bars: Bureau of Justice Statistics Issues First Report

by Andrea Cavanaugh

The numbers only begin to tell the story.

In July, 2005, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics released its first-ever report on the prevalence of prisoner rape. A survey of U.S. prisons, jails, and youth facilities found that there were 8,210 allegations of sexual violence against prisoners last year. Nearly 2,100 of those allegations were substantiated by detention facility officials.
With more than 2.1 million Americans behind bars, nearly everyone acknowledges the BJS statistics offer only a glimpse of the truth. Even the study's authors, BJS statisticians Allen J. Beck and Timothy A. Hughes, wrote that the numbers represent only the tip of the iceberg. The factors that prevent prisoners from reporting rape are just too powerful, they concluded.

Administrative records alone cannot provide reliable estimates of sexual violence," Beck and Hughes wrote. Due to fear of reprisal from perpetrators, a code of silence among inmates, personal embarrassment, and lack of trust in staff, victims are often reluctant to report incidents to correctional authorities.

At present there are no reliable estimates of the extent of unreported sexual victimization among prison and jail inmates and youth held in residential facilities.

Although statistics are often the best tool we have to measure a problem, they are just numbers on a page. Talking to prisoner rape survivors gives a much better picture of the pervasive sexual violence they face. I work for Stop Prisoner Rape (SPR), the only organization in the country dedicated to ending sexual abuse behind bars. Over the past six months, I have interviewed many current and former prisoners about being sexually abused in custody. The stories they tell are chilling.

One former Michigan prisoner told me about traveling to an outside work assignment with a dozen other female prisoners. The guard dropped the other women off at their work sites and drove her to a remote location. There, he told her he was prepared to push her out of the van and report her as an escapee unless she performed oral sex. Thinking about the infant son she had left in the care of a friend, and the two years or so an escape charge would add to her sentence, she felt she had no choice but to drop to her knees.

Sadly, the guard probably had his eye on her long before she got into that van. Several former Michigan prisoners told me the guards at their facilities regularly ogled naked prisoners while strolling through showers and dormitories. They told me that some guards reviewed prisoners' files to learn which ones had been sexually abused as children or been in abusive relationships as adults, because they knew that those women were much more likely to submit to abuse without complaint.

The authors of the BJS report cautioned against using the numbers to rank states or individual facilities, but it's hard not to draw conclusions. More than 44 percent of prisoner-on-prisoner sexual assaults were reported in Texas. This figure was hardly surprising more than a quarter of the letters SPR receives from prisoner rape survivors are written by Texas prisoners. Texas prisoners tell SPR that smaller, weaker prisoners are routinely placed in cells with known sexual predators. Prison officials there often tell prisoners suffering sexual abuse to suck it up" or fight or fuck." Grievances are systematically ignored.

That's what happened to Rodney Hulin. The 17-year-old Texas teen was sentenced to eight years in an adult prison for setting fire to a dumpster as a prank. Almost immediately after entering prison, he was repeatedly beaten and raped by older, bigger prisoners. Prison officials ignored pleas for help from Rodney and his family. An assistant warden told Rodney's mother that her son needed to grow up." Finally, the despondent teen hung himself in his cell rather than face further abuse. He languished in a coma for four months before he died.

Although stories like these are far from uncommon, many prison and jail officials claim that little or no sexual abuse takes place inside their facilities. They are able to maintain this charade because very little reliable research has been done on the prevalence of rape behind bars.
However, one pioneering study of Midwestern prisons conducted by social scientist Cindy Struckman-Johnson found that sexual abuse in prisons and jails is rampant one in five male prisoners had been sexually pressured, and one in 10 had been raped. At one women's facility studied by Struckman-Johnson, more than a quarter of the prisoners said that they had been sexually abused.

Even though few researchers have tackled the issue of prisoner rape, the climate is slowly changing. The BJS study was the first annual report mandated by the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) of 2003, the first-ever federal law to address prison rape. PREA calls for states to adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward prisoner rape and to take measures to prevent sexual violence behind bars. It also calls for the development of tools to learn the true prevalence of prisoner rape, not only through the annual BJS report, but also through a comprehensive survey that will be administered to selected prisoners next year.

SPR has been working with officials to make the survey the best tool it can possibly be by fighting to remove questions inserted by detention facility officials about false reporting, and ensuring that the language used is understandable by all. Still, we worry that prisoners will be wary of answering the survey questions honestly. The same factors cited in the BJS report that prevent prisoners from reporting assaults fear, shame, lack of trust may affect responses to the survey.

However, it's vitally important that every prisoner answer the survey questions honestly and openly. Doing so will give us the tools we need to promote desperately needed changes SPR is working to ensure that the survey will be truly anonymous.

Prisoners who answer the survey questions honestly will not only be helping themselves. They'll be improving living conditions for countless others who may fall victim to prisoner rape, particularly vulnerable prisoners such as young first-timers, mentally ill or developmentally disabled prisoners, and gay and transgender prisoners. No one should have to go through the physical and mental agony that survivors suffer.
The physical consequences of being raped in prison are manifold. Many survivors suffer horrific injuries during their assaults, ranging from torn tissue to broken bones. HIV rates are three times higher in prisons than on the outside, and other sexually transmitted diseases, such as Hepatitis C, also are common.

The emotional consequences can be even worse. Many former prisoners are still struggling with the aftermath of their abuse three or four decades after they were raped. Survivors suffer from depression, post traumatic stress disorder, drug and alcohol addiction, and other maladies.

It's critical that prisoners participate in the survey. By compiling accurate data on the prevalence of prisoner rape, SPR and other advocacy groups can continue to push for reforms that will allow all prisoners to live in safety and dignity, secure in their right to be free from sexual violence. The BJS report is titled Sexual Violence Reported by Correctional Authorities, 2004. It is available on PLN's website at or can be ordered at no charge from: National Criminal Justice Reference Service (NCJRS), P.O. Box 6000, Rockville, MD 20849-6000. 800-851-3420.

For more information about SPR or to obtain a resource guide for survivors of prisoner rape, write to SPR at 3325 Wilshire Blvd, Ste. 340, Los Angeles, CA 90010.

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