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Sexual Victimization in Prison Statistically Analyzed

by John E. Dannenberg

The New York Academy of Medicine published a study in June 2006 on rates of sexual victimization of state prisoners. Contrasted with earlier studies that only used small population samples, this study covered all adult prisoners (22,231) in one state, encompassing its twelve male prisons and one female prison. The study was also designed to yield improved validity, based on the phrasing of what are necessarily sensitive questions, and on reliability, enhanced by the use of computer-assisted self-administered interviews (CASI).

A principal result was that the female prisoner-on-prisoner victimization rate was 212 per 1,000 population, over four times that of males (43 per 1,000). Abusive sexual conduct was more likely than non-consensual sexual acts, whether among prisoners or between prisoners and staff. Finally, the study noted that sexual violence within prisons is a major public health hazard that comes back to disproportionately strike poor inner-city populations.

The study reported prior research showing an average national estimated prevalence of sexual assault in prison of 1.9%. Most studies have shown a higher sexual assault rate in male facilities, compared to female.
Females are less likely to suffer assault from staff (rather than from other prisoners) ?the opposite of the male situation. But most prevalent is assault on younger prisoners, particularly first-termers in new-arrival status. An interracial bias was also reported, with victims most often being White, with the aggressors being Black. The authors attributed this to a ?revenge for historical oppression? and to the ?reversal of racial dominance inside prison.?

The study was conducted with English and Spanish questionnaires. 80.5% of the male participants were non-white, with an average age of 34.
Questioning was administered with the CASI format; responses were made with a computer mouse. Tests ran for 60 minutes, with assistants available by headphone to respond to question from participants, where interviewers used a scripted protocol.

Types of questions included, ?Have you been sexually assaulted by (a prisoner or staff member) within the last 6 months [or during this term]?? ?What type of assault occurred [touching, grabbing, verbal, sex by force, etc.]??

?Nonconsensual sexual acts? were defined as forced sexual acts, while ?abusive sexual contacts? were defined as intentional inappropriate touching. The questionnaire did not ask about consensual sex between prisoners or with staff which is still outlawed in all 50 states and the federal prison system.

Some of the results were that among female victims, 65.5% were likely to also suffer from mental health problems (compared to 30% among male victims). Rates of prisoner-on-prisoner assault were twice as high among female prisoners as among males, while staff-on-prisoner assaults were 1.6 times more prevalent in female facilities than in male ones. Also, prisoners aged 25 or younger were almost twice as likely to suffer assaults than older prisoners. An important factor in the analysis showed that female prisoners were six times more likely to report abusive sexual contact than their male counterparts. As to staff assaults on prisoners, female prisoners were three times more likely to suffer attacks than males.

Not surprising to prisoner readers, the incidence of sexual violence in prison is related to conditions of overcrowding and unavailability of programming. The rate of prisoner-on-prisoner rape is ten times the rate of adult women in the free world, while the rate for staff-perpetrated rape is six times higher. This study concluded that the overall rate of prisoner rape is about 3.2t.

But extrapolating the statistics of this study to the national prison population of 1.4 million would project that 22,000 male (and 3,200 female) prisoners suffer forced sexual acts annually. The resulting damage from HIV infection and emotional/psychological trauma augur poorly for behavior after prison. The harm was observed to be particularly biased against the preponderance of prisoners who come from disadvantaged locales, who already suffer poorer health, higher drug dependency and elevated needs for basic life support systems. See: Journal of Urban Health: Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, Vol. 83, No. 5 (2006).

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