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Sexual Victimization Widespread in U.S. Correctional Facilities

In a culture where it is socially acceptable for celebrities, advertisers and even movies to joke about the unfunny fact of prison rape, it should come as no surprise that almost 4% of prisoners in the United States have reported being sexually victimized while incarcerated.

As part of the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 (PREA), Congress directed the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) to conduct an annual statistical review and analysis of sexual abuse in U.S. correctional facilities. In response, the BJS created the National Inmate Survey (NIS).

Through the use of computerized media that protects the anonymity of survey participants, the NIS was used to ask about 63,800 prisoners in 146 state and federal prisons and 282 local jails to self-report whether they had been sexually victimized by staff members or other offenders. This data sample was then used to extrapolate national estimates.

The survey results were troubling. During 2007, an estimated 4.5% of state and federal prisoners and 3.2% of offenders in local jails reported being sexually victimized by other prisoners or correctional employees. This represented about 85,200 prisoners nationwide, or 3.7% of the nation’s combined 2.3 million prison and jail population.

State and federal offenders who participated in the NIS reported more sexual victimization by prison staff members (38,600 incidents) than by other prisoners (27,500 incidents). Similarly, offenders in local jails reported more incidents involving employees (15,200) than other prisoners (12,100).* These reports included both non-consensual and willing incidents of sexual abuse.

Among the prison systems that were surveyed, Texas had the dubious honor of the greatest number of facilities with high rates of sexual victimization. Five Texas prisons – Estelle, Clements, Allred, Mountain View and Coffield – were among the top ten facilities with the highest rates of abuse. The worst was Estelle, with 15.7% of prisoners reporting sexual abuse. Nebraska’s Tecumseh State Correctional Institution, Florida’s Charlotte Correctional Institution, New York’s Great Meadow Correctional Facility, the Rockville Correctional Facility in Indiana, and California’s Valley State Prison for Women rounded out the rest of the top ten.

The incidence rate of sexual victimization in federal prisons was generally much lower than in state facilities, but there were some notable exceptions. For example, 6.2% of the population at the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) in Pekin, Illinois reported some form of sexual victimization. Other federal prisons with elevated rates of abuse included FCI Victorville, FCI Yazoo City, U.S. Penitentiary Big Sandy and the Federal Medical Facility Lexington.

At the local level, 18 jails reported sexual victimization rates that were at least twice the national jail average. The CCA-operated Torrance County Detention Facility in New Mexico had the highest rate, with 13.4% of the jail’s population reporting sexual abuse. [See: PLN, May 2009, p.1].

Washington’s Clark County Jail ranked second with 9.1%, followed by New Mexico’s Bernalillo County Metro Detention Center, Florida’s Brevard County Detention Center, the Southeastern Ohio Regional Jail, Indiana’s Wayne County Jail, New York’s Franklin County Jail and New York City Rose M. Singer Center, and the Atlanta City Jail and Fulton County Jail in Georgia. Other jails in the top 18 included facilities in Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Maine and California.

The BJS survey of local jails also revealed some interesting trends. Women, for example, were more likely to report having been sexually victimized while incarcerated. Significantly, survey data indicated that prisoners who identified as homosexual or bisexual were three to six times more likely to have experienced sexual abuse.

In January 2010, the BJS released a report on sexual victimization in juvenile prisons. The report was based on a survey of 9,198 juvenile offenders at 195 state, local and privately-operated facilities. An estimated 12.1 percent of juveniles reported some type of sexual abuse while incarcerated, totaling 3,220 incidents nationwide. There were far more reports of victimization involving staff members (2,730) than other juvenile offenders (700). Interestingly, in regard to inci-dents involving staff, 95% of the reported sexual victimizations involved female employees.

The juvenile facilities with the highest reported rates of sexual abuse included the Backbone Mt. Youth Center in Maryland, the Pendleton Juvenile Correctional Facility in Indiana, North Carolina’s Smarkand Youth Development Center, the Corsicana Residential Treatment Center in Texas, and Pennsylvania’s Cresson Secure Treatment Unit. More than 30% of the juvenile offender population at each of those facilities reported some form of sexual victimization.

The data collected by the BJS through the above surveys was used by the National Prison Rape Elimination Com-mission (NPREC) to draft national standards for reporting, preventing and addressing the problem of sexual abuse in prisons, jails, juvenile facilities, immigration detention centers and community corrections facilities. The NPREC’s pro-posed standards were released in June 2009; having fulfilled its purpose, the Commission was then disbanded. Since much of the data is self-reported by the agencies with no independent verification it is of questionable reliability.

The U.S. Attorney General’s office must now promulgate national standards for reporting, responding to and reducing sexual abuse in correctional facilities based on the NPREC’s recommendations. An alliance of advocacy organizations, the Raising the Bar for Justice and Safety Coalition, launched a campaign on February 18, 2010 to urge the Attorney General to act quickly to implement the standards. Part of the problem is with the PREA itself. It gives sexual assault victims no rights and has no enforcement mechanism, no independent verification mechanism and as has been demonstrated, is readily susceptible to political pressure by prison industry lobbyists.

The Attorney General has until June 2010 to issue national standards; however, it appears that deadline will not be met and there are concerns that the NPREC’s proposed standards may be diminished or circumvented. Already after producing a first draft the proposed standards, which were weak to begin with, were watered down even further after prison and jail officials complained. The Raising the Bar coalition is headed by Just Detention International (formerly known as Stop Prisoner Rape). Other members include the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, the Campaign for Youth Justice, First Focus, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Prison Fellowship Ministries and the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society.

PLN has extensively covered the issue of sexual abuse in prisons and jails. [See: PLN, May 2009, p.1; Aug. 2006, p.1]. We will continue reporting on this topic, as it has proven to be such a pervasive and persistent problem that it constitutes a de facto policy.

* The numbers in each category do not add up to the reported totals, as some prisoners reported multiple incidents in one or more categories.

Sources: Bureau of Justice Statistics reports (NCJ 228416, NCJ 221946, NCJ 219414);

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