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Prison Rape: Obama’s Program to Stop It

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Jane Evelyn Atwood/Contact Press Images
A female prisoner in solitary confinement who was allegedly sexually abused by guards, Sixth Avenue Jail Annex, Anchorage, Alaska, 1993

The United States has by far the largest prison system in the world. It is so large, in fact, so sprawling and dispersed, so administratively complex, that just how many people we keep locked up is uncertain. The most commonly cited statistic is that we have about 2.3 million inmates. This comes from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), a division of the Justice Department that surveys the national prison system and found that on June 30, 2009, the US had 203,233 federal prisoners, 1,326,547 state prisoners, and 767,620 detainees in local jails.

But then, in addition, more than 80,000 youth are held in juvenile detention facilities on any given day. Before being deported, about 400,000 people a year also pass through our immigration detention system, which is run mostly by the Department of Homeland Security. Hundreds of thousands more are held in halfway houses and police lockups; no one knows the exact number. The Bureau of Indian Affairs oversees jails in Indian Country, and the Department of Defense has its own network of more than sixty detention facilities all over the globe.

The people we imprison are overwhelmingly our most disadvantaged: the poor and the poorly educated, the black and the brown, the mentally ill. Typically, they’re given extraordinarily long sentences compared to prisoners in the European Union, often for infractions that would not warrant incarceration elsewhere. And while they’re imprisoned, appalling numbers of them are subjected to sexual abuse. A new BJS study released in May found that approximately one in ten former state prisoners were sexually abused while serving their most recent sentences. Overall (but accounting only for prisons, jails, and juvenile detention facilities), the Justice Department estimates that more than 209,400 people are sexually abused in US detention every year. This is a national disgrace—especially because prisoner rape is an eminently preventable problem.1

In 2003, however, both chambers of Congress unanimously passed and President Bush signed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which called both for extensive study of sexual abuse in detention and national standards to prevent, detect, and respond to it. The Obama administration has now issued those standards. If they are successful—and we believe they will be, to an extent many people may find surprising—not only will they reduce the incidence of prisoner rape dramatically, they will make American detention facilities better run, more humane, and safer places in general.

The standards have to do with how detention facilities are staffed, and how inmates are supervised and monitored; with how inmates are classified and housed within a facility; with the ways they can report sexual abuse, and how staff must investigate and respond to such reports. Among many other things, they will also affect the ways detention facilities must be monitored to ensure that they comply with these regulations.

Enforcement of the standards will rest in the first instance with corrections agencies themselves: the state departments of corrections and the county sheriffs’ offices that oversee most prisons and jails, respectively. The standards became legally binding for federal facilities run by the Bureau of Prisons on August 20. State prison systems have another year to achieve compliance; then, if they fail to do so, they risk losing important federal funds. Local jails that do not comply will not face such a well-defined penalty, but, as we will discuss below, jails, too, have good reasons to adopt the standards.

What conditions make prisoner rape likely in the first place? A great deal has been learned about this over the past few years. The PREA legislation, which charged the BJS with undertaking annual statistical analyses of the problem that have proved indispensable, also created a body called the Review Panel on Prison Rape. The review panel’s task is to summon staff from some of the best- and worst-performing facilities identified by the BJS every year to hearings, to learn what makes them good or bad. And it has thrown light into some very dark places.

The review panel’s most recent report describes the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, a maximum-security state prison in Troy, Virginia. About 1,200 women are confined there, and when the BJS surveyed them in 2009, 11.4 percent said they’d been sexually abused by other inmates in the preceding year alone; 6.0 percent said they’d been sexually abused by staff.2

The twelve months asked about in that survey came shortly after sexual misconduct by Fluvanna’s staff had already turned into scandal. Former inmate Melissa Andrews told the review panel about Patrick Owen Gee, who was chief of security at the prison—a man, she said, who seemed to hate women. When he started working at Fluvanna, he “went from wing to wing in each building and told us, ‘you bitches think you’ve been living in Kindercare…things are going to change.’” Andrews also testified that the warden to whom Gee reported, Barbara Wheeler, “said to officers many times, that if she took anything and everything from us including our humanity maybe we would not return to prison.” Gee was convicted of sexually abusing the inmates he was supposed to protect in 2008, and sentenced to five years in prison.3

Wheeler was still Fluvanna’s warden during the period covered in the BJS survey, but she was gone when the panel started its investigation. Following Gee’s conviction, and after a subsequent Associated Press article claimed that Fluvanna segregated lesbian and masculine-looking inmates in a so-called “butch wing” where they were “humiliated and stigmatized,” she retired. When the panel visited Fluvanna in April 2011, however, it quickly recognized that conditions inside the prison were still fostering abuse.

Although the new warden, Wendy Hobbs, had made some improvements, she had also retained several of Wheeler’s worst policies. There are no toilets in Fluvanna’s cells, and for example, during shakedowns—searches for contraband that often last a week—only one inmate at a time was allowed out to use the bathroom. That sometimes meant waits of four hours, and some inmates, especially elderly women on diuretic medicine for diabetes and high blood pressure, would be forced to urinate on themselves. For this they were sent to administrative segregation, commonly known as “solitary confinement.” According to the Justice Department, the isolation experienced there “is known to be dangerous to mental health.”

Any woman reporting that she had been sexually abused was given the same treatment. “If you dial the PREA number,” one inmate told the panel, “it’s a ticket to SEG [segregation].” Wendy Hobbs explained that in such cases segregation was intended to protect the woman from other prisoners while an investigation was conducted, and not to be a punishment, but that this distinction was lost on the inmates. The review panel discovered that when women in segregation were moved within Fluvanna (to the showers, for example), they were not only shackled hand and foot, but sometimes restrained with what the women called a “dog collar” and “dog leash.” “The dog collar totally freaked me out,” said one member of the panel.

In an unpublished 2004 BJS study, 42 percent of female state prisoners reported having been sexually abused earlier in life, before their current sentences began.4 Fluvanna’s assistant director for mental health, Nathan Young, testified to the review panel that 80 percent of the women there meet the diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or have symptoms of it. These can range from extreme rage, persistent disconnectedness, or rapid mood swings to difficulty eating, bathing, and sleeping. “Basically,” Young told the panel, “the institution is a big trauma wing.”

Barbara Owen, an expert on women’s prisons, told the panel that even “standard policies and procedures in correctional settings—e.g., searches, restraints, and isolation—can have profound effects on women with histories of trauma and abuse, and they often act as triggers to re-traumatize women who have PTSD.” As past trauma is reactivated by, for example, unwanted touching during a pat search, or being locked in a tiny, isolated room and forced to wear a “dog collar,” the symptoms of PTSD typically become more pronounced.

For both women and men, having a history of prior sexual abuse is—along with being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, or gender non-conforming (LGBTI)—one of the two factors that make it most likely she or he will be sexually abused in detention. Prisons tend to be places where the strong prey on those perceived as weak, and where failure to conform to that pattern is itself taken as weakness. Guards, as well as inmates, quickly recognize symptoms of vulnerability.5

The pointlessly cruel and degrading policies at Fluvanna exemplify an approach to prison management that one would expect to produce high rates of sexual abuse—as, indeed, the BJS found in 2008–2009. Further confirming this, the review panel, during its one-day visit to the prison last year, heard reports that yet another male officer was abusing inmates. It referred the allegations to Hobbs, and eventually a lieutenant was arrested on three charges “of carnal knowledge with a prisoner.”6 When a prison’s administration is so evidently hostile to its inmates, and when inmates know they will be punished for daring to complain about even the gravest violations, then widespread sexual abuse is almost inevitable. Summarizing its findings from all the prisons and jails it investigated last year, the review panel gave particular emphasis to “the significance of institutional culture in creating environments that either prevent or permit sexual victimization.”

The new BJS study shows that this conclusion holds true throughout the prison system. It found that a prison’s size, age, degree of crowding, and staff-to-inmate ratio have no clear bearing on its rate of sexual abuse. However, prisons that had recently experienced large-scale violence or were under a court order to address substandard living conditions did have significantly elevated rates of sexual abuse. Allen Beck, senior statistical adviser at the BJS and the study’s lead author, told us in an e-mail that “in the end, the data suggest that institutional culture and facility leadership may be key factors in determining the level of victimization.”

The BJS study is based on a national survey of former state prisoners currently on parole, 9.6 percent of whom said they were sexually abused during their last sentences.7 Prisoner rape simply could not take place at such a rate if bad prison officials weren’t common, and if inmates around the country weren’t afraid to report sexual abuse because they know that staff will likely respond with retaliation and punishment.

Approximately half of all sexual abuse in detention is committed by staff, not by inmates. And almost half the former prisoners who reported sexual abuse by staff said that more than one staff member had abused them; 85.8 percent said it happened more than once. Moreover, apart from abuse, one third of all former prisoners reported that staff had sexually harassed them, by, for example, deliberately brushing against their private parts or staring inappropriately while they showered when that had nothing to do with the officer’s job. As the Justice Department notes, such harassment, though a lesser offense, “is often a precursor to sexual abuse.”8

Nationwide, only 37.4 percent of those prisoners who reported having been victims of inmate-on-inmate sexual abuse and only 20.7 percent of inmates who claimed unwilling sexual contact with staff said they had dared to file a report at their prisons.9 When they did complain about other inmates, they were as likely to be written up for punishment themselves (which they were 28.5 percent of the time) as to speak with an investigator or see their assailants punished in any way. Inmates who complained of staff sexual misconduct were written up for punishment 46.3 percent of the time.

  1. 1

    See David Kaiser and Lovisa Stannow, “ The Way to Stop Prison Rape,” The New York Review, March 25, 2010. The 209,400 estimate is a revision of the Justice Department’s earlier estimate that over 216,600 inmates are sexually abused in US detention facilities every year. 

  2. 2

    Later, though, in testimony before the review panel, a local activist who had worked extensively with Fluvanna’s inmates said that she had heard about approximately ten times as much staff sexual misconduct at the prison as inmate-on-inmate abuse. It may be that many of Fluvanna’s inmates were too afraid to report staff sexual abuse in the BJS survey, even though they were promised anonymity. 

  3. 3

    Gee was hardly the first man working at Fluvanna to sexually abuse the inmates he supervised. According to The Washington Post, “in 1999, an internal report sparked by a series of Associated Press articles detailing sexual abuse at the prison found that 13 guards had been fired or resigned over allegations of sexual assault, harassing or fraternizing with inmates.” 

  4. 4

    This study is cited in the National Standards to Prevent, Detect, and Respond to Prison Rape, p. 37131. According to testimony before the review panel, also, “one of the most consistent [academic] findings has been that female offenders are more likely than male offenders to have experienced violent victimization in childhood, and much more likely…than non-incarcerated women.” 

  5. 5

    Inmates regularly tell our organization, Just Detention International, how corrections officers sexually victimize them because of their past. Former inmate Robin McArdle explained: “for me, being sexually abused as a child made me an easy target. It is in our file, and the guards can see that…. We learn from a young age to keep our mouths shut.” 

  6. 6

    Just Detention International receives more than fifty letters a week from survivors of sexual abuse in detention, and we too have heard several stories of abuse at Fluvanna that management has failed to discover, or to do anything about. One woman held there for violating the terms of her parole (who has given us permission to use her name, but whose anonymity, in the circumstances, we prefer to protect) told us after being sexually abused by an officer in 2010 that “this prison is notorious for this sort of situation, and I have been victimized over and over again emotionally. These people are sick. I feel passed over like road kill. I feel as if my pleas for help are being shuffled within an internal cesspool of corruption and that I will not be helped.” 

  7. 7

    Even this number is probably too low, since the survey missed a lot of especially troubled parolees, including those who had absconded or been re-incarcerated. The average length of time spent behind bars by those who did participate in the survey during their most recent episodes of incarceration was 39.4 months. The BJS explains that this new study “is designed to encourage a fuller reporting of victimization” than its two earlier surveys of people who were still imprisoned “by surveying only former inmates, who are not subject to the immediate fear of retaliation from perpetrators or a code of silence while in prison.” Because of the longer periods asked about in the new study, however, it does not replace and cannot be combined with the numbers from those earlier studies, which asked inmates only whether they’d been sexually abused at their current facilities within the preceding year. The average exposure period for respondents to the 2008–2009 survey was just 7.9 months, and that study was the basis for the Justice Department’s estimate that more than 209,400 people are sexually abused in American prisons, jails, and juvenile detention centers every year. 

  8. 8

    The BJS didn’t ask about verbal harassment from staff, and we hate to think what the numbers would have been if it had—but this is not a trivial matter. It is a barometer of the environment within a facility. Barbara Owen testified to the review panel that “our findings show that both inmate-inmate victimization and staff sexual misconduct occurs on a continuum, and when we take [a] prevention or intervention approach, it’s almost like the broken windows philosophy of stop the small stuff, and I think probably the [biggest] single indicator of that is staff verbal harassment.” 

  9. 9

    The study describes 78.7 percent of the staff sexual misconduct reported to it as “willing” on the part of the inmate, although acknowledging that “all sexual contacts between inmates and staff are legally nonconsensual,” since the power imbalance between corrections officers and prisoners is so great that it renders consent in such circumstances meaningless. Indeed, over 60 percent of the inmates who claimed that they willingly had sex with staff also reported that the staff involved had used means of coercion such as bribery, blackmail, offers of protection from other inmates or staff, and drugs or alcohol. 

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