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Department of Justice Reports on Sexual Victimization in U.S. Prisons and Jails

by Matt Clarke

In August 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) released a report on the most recent national survey of prisoners on the topic of sexual victimization in prisons and jails. The survey was conducted at 167 state and federal prisons, 286 jails and 10 special confinement facilities between October 2008 and December 2009.

Over 76,450 prisoners answered questions about unwanted sexual contact involving other prisoners and any type of sexual activity with prison or jail staff. Most of the prisoners, all of whom were at least 18 years old, completed the survey in private using a touch-screen interfaced computer-assisted questionnaire; 726 prisoners who were in segregation or considered too violent to be interviewed filled out a paper questionnaire form. The survey fulfilled the requirements of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) for an annual comprehensive statistical review and analysis of incidents and effects of prison rape.

The survey found that 4.4% of state and federal prisoners and 3.1% of jail prisoners reported at least one incident of sexual victimization by other prisoners or staff within the preceding 12 months. Extrapolating this to the entire U.S. prison and jail population results in an estimated 88,500 sexual victimizations of prisoners each year. This represents a slight decrease from the 2007 BJS survey of sexual victimization of prisoners in terms of rates, but an increase in the total estimated number of prisoners who were sexually victimized. [See: PLN, March 2010, p.22].

The most serious type of sexual victimization surveyed was nonconsensual sex, including unwilling manual stimulation and oral, anal or vaginal penetration. Unwanted touching of specific areas of the body in a sexual way was considered a less serious form of sexual victimization.

According to the survey, 2.1% of state and federal prisoners and 1.5% of jail prisoners reported sexual incidents involving other prisoners, including 1.0% and 0.8%, respectively, who said they had nonconsensual sex with another prisoner.

Further, 2.8% of state and federal prisoners and 2.0% of jail prisoners reported having sexual contact with staff. 1.8% and 1.1%, respectively, said the sexual encounters were consensual. However, sexual contact between staff members and prisoners constitutes a crime in all states, regardless of consent.

In a reversal from the prevailing stereotype, female prisoners in state and federal facilities (4.7%) or jails (3.1%) were more than twice as likely to be sexually victimized by other prisoners than their male prison (1.9%) or jail (1.3%) counterparts. Male prisoners in prisons (2.9%) and jails (2.1%) reported more sexual activity with staff than female prisoners in prisons (2.1%) and jails (1.5%).

In state and federal prisons, at 16.2%, male victims of prisoner-on-prisoner (POP) sexual abuse were more likely than females (5.5%) to report having been victimized more than 11 times in the preceding 12 months. 41.6% of female POP sexual abuse victims and 35.2% of males reported having only been sexually abused once. 10.8% of male POP sexual abuse victims and 24.7% of females reported POP abuse by more than one perpetrator.

Also in state and federal prisons, male POP victims (41.7%) were more likely than females (25.7%) to report having been bribed or blackmailed to participate in sexual activity. 48.1% of male POP victims and 29.5% of female POP victims reported that they were threatened with harm or a weapon to submit to POP sexual abuse.

For male victims of staff sexual misconduct (SSM), the perpetrators were female 69% of the time in prisons and 64% of the time in jails. Among victims of SSM, l6.3% of state and federal prisoners and 17.5% of those in jail reported having been victimized by both male and female staff.

Controlling for multiple characteristics, risk factors that increased the probability of POP sexual victimization included being white or multi-racial, having a college degree, being bisexual or homosexual, having been convicted of a violent sexual offense, having a long sentence, being newly arrived at a facility, and having been sexually victimized before arriving at the facility. SSM was significantly lower among prisoners who were white, older than 25, less educated and who had not been sexually victimized before arriving at the facility.

Eight male prisons, two female prisons and six jails were 55% or more above the average for POP sexual victimizations in comparable facilities. The Hughes Unit (TX-8.6%), Allred Unit (TX-7.6%), Pontiac Correctional Center (IL-6.9%), Plainfield Correctional Facility (IN-6.1%), Michael Unit (TX-6.1%), Maine State Prison-Warren (ME-5.9%), California Medical Facility (CA-5.8%) and Pleasant Valley State Prison (CA-5.5%) grossly exceeded the average of 1.9% for POP abuse in all male prisons.

Taycheedah Correctional Institute (LA-11.9%) and Fluvanna Correctional Center (VA-11.4%) grossly exceeded the 4.8% POP average for all female prisons. Orleans Parish-South White Street Jail (LA-7.5%), Madison County Detention Facility (AL-5.5%), Miami-Dade County Pre-trial Detention Center (FL-5.1%), Houston County Jail (AL-4.0%), Jefferson County Jail (MO-4.0%) and Madison County Detention Center (IN-3.9%) had much higher rates than the 1.5% POP average for all jails.

Four male prisons, two female prisons and five jails were 55% or more above the SSM average in comparable facilities. The Crossroads Correctional Facility (MO-8.2%), Attica Correctional Facility (NY-8.1%), Elmira Correctional Facility (NY-7.7%) and Ferguson Unit (TX-7.6%) grossly exceeded the 2.9% SSM average for all male prisons.

Bayview Correctional Facility (NY-11.5%) and Fluvanna Correctional Facility (VA-6.0%) grossly exceeded the 2.2% SSM average for all female prisons. Caroline County Jail (MD-10.0%), Eastern Shore Regional Jail (VA-9.9%), Clallam County Correctional Facility (WA-6.1%), Orleans County Jail (NY-5.6%) and Cook County Jail-Division 6 (IL-5.5%) had the highest rates above the 2.0% SSM average for all jails.

Most POP sexual victimizations occurred between 6:00 p.m. and midnight, and most took place in a cell or sleeping area. About a fifth of all victims reported having been injured during a POP sexual incident. Only around a quarter of all POP victims reported the incident to authorities.

Most SSM incidents occurred in closets or locked offices. About an eighth of all victims reported being injured during SSM; over a fifth of all SSM victims reported the abuse to authorities. Of the SSM victims who reported improper sexual touching, 40% of females and 43% of males said the touching occurred at least once during a pat or strip search.

Although dependent on self-reporting by prisoners and subject to some methodological errors, the 91-page BJS report indicates that sexual victimization remains a serious problem in U.S. jails and prisons seven years after the Prison Rape Elimination Act was signed into law.

The PREA rules are currently being promulgated by the U.S. Department of Justice following a public comment period that ended earlier this year. PLN submitted formal comments concerning the standards on April 1, 2011.

The BJS report on sexual victimization is available on PLN’s website.

Source: Sexual Victimization in Prisons and Jails Reported by Inmates 2008-2009 (August 2010, NCJ 231169)

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