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Department of Justice Report on Sexual Victimization in Prisons and Jails

In January 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) released a report titled “Sexual Victimization Reported by Adult Correctional Authorities, 2007-2008.” The report is based on the annual Survey of Sexual Violence mandated by the Prison Rape Elimination Act, 42 U.S.C. § 15601.

Survey forms were mailed to administrators for all federal, state, military and ICE facilities, plus a representative sample of local jails and privately-operated jails and prisons. The collected data covered 2.12 million prisoners in 2007 and 2.18 million in 2008.

The BJS survey dealt with a variety of sexual victimizations, which are defined as sexual contacts without consent or with a person who cannot consent. Sexual victimization perpetrated by a prisoner (PSV) includes nonconsensual sexual acts involving contact between the sexual organ or mouth of the perpetrator and the sexual organ, mouth or anus of the victim, or penetration of the anal or genital opening of the victim by a finger, hand or another object. Abusive sexual contact is considered less serious and includes intentional touching of the genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh or buttocks, even through clothing, and incidents of sexual exploitation.

Staff sexual misconduct (SSM) includes any sexual behavior, including a romantic relationship, involving a prisoner and staff member. This includes intentional touching of the genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh or buttocks with the intent to sexually abuse, arouse or gratify; completed, attempted, threatened or requested sexual acts; or indecent exposure, invasion of privacy or voyeurism for sexual gratification.

Staff sexual harassment (SSH) includes demeaning references to a prisoner’s sex, derogatory comments about a prisoner’s body or clothing, or repeated profane or obscene language or gestures.

The BJS survey recorded 763 substantiated incidents of sexual victimization in 2008 and 783 in 2007. Extrapolating from those figures, the estimated total number of substantiated sexual victimizations nationwide was 931 in 2008 and 1,001 in 2007. Substantiated incidents of sexual violence in prisons increased 28% from 459 in 2005 to 589 in 2008.

During that same time period the total number of alleged sexual victimizations increased from 6,241 (2.83 per 1,000 prisoners) to 7,444 (3.18 per 1,000 prisoners). Most of this was due to a 21% increase in sexual victimizations in prisons rather than jails. Much of the increase resulted from abusive sexual contacts initiated by prisoners, which rose from 611 in 2005 to 1,417 in 2008.

In 54% of substantiated incidents of sexual victimization the perpetrators were prisoners, while in 46% they were staff. Female prisoners were disproportionately victimized by both prisoners and staff. Women constitute only 7% of the prison population but accounted for 21% of PSV victims. Likewise, women represent 13% of jail prisoners but accounted for 32% of PSV victimization in jails. They were also 32% of SSM victims in prisons and 56% of SSM victims in jails.

Both victims (42%) and perpetrators (31%) of nonconsensual sexual acts were disproportionately younger than 25 compared to victims (33%) and perpetrators (21%) of abusive sexual contacts. Of PSV perpetrators in jails, 38% were under 25 years old whereas 17% in prisons were under 25.

About 12% of substantiated PSVs were committed by more than one perpetrator, and approximately 18% of substantiated PSVs resulted in an injury to the victim. Around a third of nonconsensual sexual acts occurred between midnight and 6 a.m. Over a third of abusive sexual contacts occurred between noon and 6 p.m.

The most common sanction for PSV perpetrators was solitary confinement (77% in prisons, 67% in jails). In prisons, 26% of the perpetrators were subjected to legal action, such as arrest or referral for prosecution. A much higher percentage, 51%, was referred for legal action in jails.

About 61% of SSM perpetrators were male and 21% of SSH perpetrators were female. Over half of the victims of SSH (58%) reported the incidents to administrators, but only 21% of SSM victims reported such incidents.

The most common location for SSM was a program area such as the kitchen, storage area, commissary, laundry, cafeteria, hallway or workshop (38%), followed by the victim’s living area (17%).

The BJS had previously released another report with statistical data related to sexual victimization in prisons and jails reported by prisoners from 2008 to 2009, which 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. [See: PLN, June 2011, p.40].

The unfortunate conclusion one must draw from the BJS reports is that sexual victimization of prisoners – especially female prisoners – is still widespread in U.S. correctional facilities. Although the intent of PREA was noble, there continues to be a culture of permissiveness within both jails and prisons when it comes to sexual victimization. Some people consider such misconduct to be part and parcel of the prison experience and, perhaps, even a necessary evil to deter crime.

Further, some guards still apparently view prisoners as their personal chattel with little purpose other than to satisfy their every whim – including their sexual desires. Until these cultural attitudes change, sexual victimization of prisoners will persist.

Source: “Sexual Victimization Reported by Adult Correctional Authorities, 2007-2008,” 
Bureau of Justice Statistics (NCJ 231172), available online at

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