Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

BJS Report Finds Prisoner Sexual Abuse Allegations Continue to Rise

by Kevin W. Bliss

A July 2018 report by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) found the number of alleged incidents of sexual victimization among state and federal prisoners increased 180 percent from 2011 to 2015. However, the number of substantiated claims grew just 63 percent during that same time period.

The Sexual Victimization Report by Adult Correctional Authorities was first authorized in 2003 with the passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). But the standards that govern which incidents are reported took until 2012 to be adopted by the U.S. Department of Justice. [See: PLN, Nov. 2017, p.1; Sept. 2013, p.1].

Part of the lengthy delay could be attributed to PREA requirements that prisons and jails create partnerships with local rape crisis centers, which are supposed to provide support services to incarcerated victims of sexual assault – from a rape crisis hotline to in-person counseling. Correctional facilities also had to develop programs to educate staff and prisoners about sexual victimization. Other sections of PREA address such issues as prevention planning, responsive planning, collecting data and conducting audits.

The PREA standards require detention facilities to give prisoners multiple ways to report sexual victimization, which includes both sexual abuse and sexual harassment. Each allegation must be investigated by authorities. The standards apply to both privately-operated and government-run federal, state and U.S. military prisons, local jails and detention centers used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) – though statutory penalties for failing to comply with the standards only apply to state prison systems.

According to the BJS report, the overall rate of reported sexual victimization was 11.04 per 100,000 prisoners in 2015, up from 3.90 per 100,000 prisoners in 2011. From 2012 to 2015, over half (54 percent) of the alleged incidents involved guards or other prison staff.

The number of reported incidents has steadily increased since 2005. In 2011, just before the PREA standards were implemented, 8,768 sexual assaults were reported by prisoners. By the end of 2015 that number had soared to 24,661.

“You would think that more reports [mean] a rise in incidents,” said Jesse Lerner-Kinglake, communications director for Just Detention International (JDI), a non-profit that focuses on the problem of prisoner sexual abuse. “But in fact the most important thing that it tells us is that people are coming forward, which is what we want.”

Yet while the number of reported claims from all prisoners has nearly tripled since 2011, the 1,473 substantiated claims in 2015 represented just six percent of the total reported incidents. More prisoner-on-prisoner incidents were substantiated than staff-on-prisoner incidents.

Lovisa Stannow, JDI’s executive director, was skeptical that prisoners were making so many false accusations, pointing to the fact that prison officials often start off with a presumption that a prisoner’s report is false – particularly when it is against a colleague.

“There’s a tendency to close ranks,” she noted.

In October 2018, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC) released statistics of sexual abuse incidents reported in state prisons in 2017. Of 133 claims filed, 15 were proved, 50 disproved, 36 were unable to be either proved or disproved, and 32 remained pending.

DOC spokesman Tristan Cook said the agency has “zero tolerance” for sexual misconduct.

Redgranite Correctional Institution guard Jessica Wulff was fired in 2017 for becoming sexually involved with a prisoner, despite his protestations that he didn’t feel victimized. Stanley Correctional Institution staff member Jamie Faude also lost her job in 2017 over a romance with a prisoner, who insisted that he had not been coerced, either.

Regardless, all sexual activity between prisoners and staff members is illegal because prisoners, due to their incarcerated status, cannot legally consent to sex.

Wisconsin DOC guard Katy Moon, 31, was not only fired from her position at the Kettle Moraine Correctional Institution, she was prosecuted and pleaded guilty in May 2018 to a misdemeanor charge after having a sexual relationship with a prisoner. She was sentenced to 10 days in jail plus two years of probation. And Ellsworth Correctional Institution nurse Jeremy Deppisch was charged in July 2018 with three counts of second-degree sexual assault after he allegedly had sex with a female prisoner who sought medical attention. 

Further, in September 2018, indictments were handed down by a grand jury in Hunterdon County, New Jersey against prison guards Brian Y. Ambroise, 33, and Ronald Coleman, Jr. 39, alleging they had sexually abused two women held at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility in 2015 and 2016.

Ambroise, a three-year veteran at the prison, was suspended without pay; he had previously been charged with sexually assaulting two other female prisoners. Coleman, who worked for the New Jersey DOC for 17 years, is no longer employed there.

Five other staffers at the Edna Mahan facility have been charged with similar crimes, with three pleading guilty – Joel Herscap, Thomas Seguine and Ahnwar Dixon. A fourth, 46-year-old guard Jason Mays, was convicted in May 2018 and sentenced to 16 years. Still awaiting trial is former guard Joel Mercado.

The U.S. Department of Justice is conducting a civil rights investigation into sexual abuse at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, and lawsuits filed by several of the female prisoners who were sexually assaulted remain pending.

Despite PREA’s standards and safeguards, prisoners continue to face sexual abuse – including a disturbing number of incidents perpetrated by corrections employees. 



As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login