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Is Prison Rape on the Rise?

More prisoners are claiming to be victims of sexual abuse. Whether that's because there's been an increase in rape or an improvement in reporting is unclear, but either way almost no one who rapes an inmate ever gets convicted of a crime.

Photo of Alcatraz showers via Flickr user Samantha Marx

It's unlikely we'll ever know how common rape is in America's prison system, but one things for sure: reports of sexual abuse in US jails and prisons are rising. The number of reported incidents grew by more than a third between 2005 and 2011, according to data released last week by the Department of Justice. About half of those accused of carrying out sexual abuse were prison or jail employees, but while complaints of official abuse rose, convictions didn’t: less than 1 percent of staff members considered guilty of sexual misconduct or harassment by their employers were ever convicted of a crime—and one in five got to keep their jobs.


These statistics can be found in a report from the department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics that examines filings from administrators of adult jails and prisons, juvenile facilities, and immigrant detention centers. According to that report, there were 8,763 reports of “sexual victimization” in 2011, but the bureau believes the vast majority of incidents are never reported and that around 200,000 people in federal and state custody are victims of sexual abuse each year.

The dramatic increase in reported incidents could be the result of improved reporting methods, but even so, the rise in documented cases was not accompanied by a rise in action against abusers—though there were 33 percent more reports of sexual abuse, only 902 incidents were “substantiated” in 2011, compared to 885 in 2005. Indeed, according to the bureau, “The most common outcome of investigations was a determination that the evidence was insufficient to show whether the alleged incident occurred, i.e., the allegation was unsubstantiated.”

In the case of a correctional officer’s word versus the word of an inmate, one can guess with whom the authorities will generally side. And it’s hard to prove a case against one’s jailer when one’s jailer literally holds all the keys. Of the 10 percent of allegations which were considered substantiated in 2011, however, a disproportionate number of the victims were women. While they make up just 7 percent of the state and federal prison population, females accounted for 33 percent of “staff-on-inmate victims.” And in contrast to popular assumptions, more than half of “substantiated incidents of staff sexual misconduct… were committed by females,” 99 percent of whom ultimately suffered no legal consequences.


“These findings point to a level of impunity in our prisons and jails that is simply unacceptable,” said Lovisa Stannow, Executive Director of Just Detention International (JDI), a group that works to end rape behind bars. “When corrections agencies choose to ignore sexual abuse committed by staff members—people who are paid by our tax dollars to keep inmates safe—they support criminal behavior.”

Reported incidents of sexual abuse have risen every year since 2005, but Jesse Lerner-Kinglake, a spokesperson for JDI, told me that his group is “cautiously optimistic” that the increase “can be attributed to facilities making it easier, slowly but surely, for inmates to come forward.” Still, maintaining the rate of sexual abuse at a horrific rate of one in ten inmates victimized each year is nothing to be proud of. And so far, making it easier to come forward hasn’t made it any easier for those who have been victimized to obtain justice.

While half of all reported incidents of sexual abuse in US jails and prisons involve inmate-on-inmate violence, 100 percent of all incidents that happen behind bars are ultimately the responsibility of prison authorities—and, if you really want to go Full Leftist, the responsibility of the politicians and police-state profiteers responsible for making the land of the free the world’s leading incarcerator. Many of the 2.3 million souls kept behind bars in the US are there for the simple sin of committing non-violent drug offenses while poor and, if they're particularly unlucky, non-white. And yet their probable abuse behind bars spurs no national outrage; we pat ourselves on the back for declining rates of violent crime by defining rape in prison—and putting people in cages—as something other than criminal.


Whatever one’s view of the quality of justice meted out by the US criminal justice system, even the staunchest idiot ought to agree that sexual assault is not supposed to be part of the punishment in a supposedly civilized society. The Department of Justice itself says sexual abuse in prisons is a crime that “is no more tolerable when its victims have committed crimes of their own.” And yet it’s an uphill battle getting people to view the victims of abuse in prison as fellow people.

“Sadly, many people still feel that sexual abuse in detention doesn’t matter because it happens behind bars,” JDI’s Lerner-Kinglake told me. “Even worse,” he said, “some people feel that inmates—simply because they are inmates—deserve to be raped.”

In fact, some even claim that prisoners might like their abuse. Last year, a writer for the Daily Beast imagined that war crimes whistle-blower Chelsea Manning, like other transgender inmates, would actually enjoy being abused—a perverse vision of federal prison as a BDSM dungeon rather than a literal torture chamber where those inside aren’t given the luxury of a safe word. The Beast amended the piece after an outcry from activists and other decent people but did not retract it, as the only thing society probably cares about less than prisoners are transgender prisoners.

In 2003, Congress passed the “Prison Rape Elimination Act,” but like the PATRIOT Act and many of the other bills that wind their way through the lobbyist-filled halls of Congress, the resulting legislation didn’t have much to do with the name. Though it was welcomed by advocates for America’s inmates, the bill has mostly led to better reporting of sexual abuse but not the reduction—much less elimination—of such acts. Two years ago, the Department of Justice finally got around to issuing national standards that lay out “best practices” for staffing prisons and housing inmates in order to prevent abuse as required by the legislation passed nearly a decade before, but those standards are as only as good as their implementation. And we have no real way to know whether they’re being implemented.

It would be nice if there were a change, but it’d be foolish to expect it: there just isn’t much concern about those locked away not-so-safely beyond the reach of a reality-show cameras and the concern of the general public. Ever when we talk about sexual abuse in this country, which is far too infrequently, we don't mention the 200,000 abused every year in our prisons.

Just last week, President Obama unveiled an initiative aimed at addressing the rape epidemic in America. Speaking at the White House, he called sexual assault “an affront to our basic decency and humanity,” saying that “wherever it occurs—whether it’s in our neighborhoods or on our college campuses, our military bases or our tribal lands—it has to matter to all of us.”

Notice what he left out: “our” prisons. Maybe the president and his speech-writers simply forgot about the world's largest incarcerated population—out of sight, out of mind—or maybe the man who has pardoned about as many turkeys as people didn't think to mention abuse of prisoners because he doesn't much care.

Charles Davis is a writer and producer in Los Angeles. His work has been published by outlets including Al Jazeera, the New Inquiry, and Salon.