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The Shame of Our Prisons: New Evidence

Sexual Victimization in Prisons and Jails Reported by Inmates, 2011–12: National Inmate Survey, 2011–12

by Allen J. Beck and others
Bureau of Justice Statistics, 107 pp., available at www.bjs.gov

Sexual Victimization in Juvenile Facilities Reported by Youth, 2012: National Survey of Youth in Custody, 2012

by Allen J. Beck and others
Bureau of Justice Statistics, 64 pp., available at www.bjs.gov
Richard Ross, www.juvenile-in-justice.com
An orientation training session at the Youthful Offender System prison in Pueblo, Colorado, 2010

As recently as five years ago, American corrections officials almost uniformly denied that rape in prison was a widespread problem. When we at Just Detention International—an organization aimed at preventing the sexual abuse of inmates—recounted stories of people we knew who had been raped in prison, we were told either that these men and women were exceptional cases, or simply that they were liars. But all this has changed.

What we have now that we didn’t then is good data. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), an agency within the Justice Department, has conducted a series of studies of the problem based on anonymous surveys that, between them, have reached hundreds of thousands of inmates. Those who agreed to take the surveys, without being informed in advance of the subject, spent an average of thirty-five minutes responding to questions on a computer touchscreen, with synchronized audio instructions given through headsets. The officials in charge either positioned themselves so they couldn’t see the computer screens or left the room.

The consistency of the findings from these surveys is overwhelming. The same factors that put inmates at risk of sexual abuse show up again and again, as do the same patterns of abuse involving race and gender, inmates and guards. Prison officials used to say that inmates were fabricating their claims in order to cause trouble. But then why, for example, do whites keep reporting higher levels of inmate-on-inmate sexual abuse than blacks? Is there some cultural difference causing white inmates to invent more experiences of abuse (or else causing blacks to hide what they are suffering)? If so, then why do blacks keep reporting having been sexually abused by their guards at higher rates than whites?1 The more closely one looks at these studies, the more persuasive their findings become. Very few corrections professionals now publicly dispute them.

The BJS has just released a third edition of its National Inmate Survey (NIS), which covers prisons and jails, and a second edition of its National Survey of Youth in Custody (NSYC). These studies confirm some of the most important findings from earlier surveys—among others, the still poorly understood fact that an extraordinary number of female inmates and guards commit sexual violence. They also reveal new aspects of a variety of problems, including (1) the appalling (though, from state to state, dramatically uneven) prevalence of sexual misconduct by staff members in juvenile detention facilities; (2) the enormous and disproportionate number of mentally ill inmates who are abused sexually; and (3) the frequent occurrence of sexual assault in military detention facilities.

According to the latest surveys, in 2011 and 2012, 3.2 percent of all people in jail, 4.0 percent of state and federal prisoners, and 9.5 percent of those held in juvenile detention reported having been sexually abused in their current facility during the preceding year.2 (Jails, which are usually run by county governments, typically hold people who have recently been arrested and are awaiting trial or release, or else serving sentences of less than a year; prisons are for those serving longer sentences.) The rate of abuse in prisons is slightly lower than has been reported in previous years, but the difference is too small to be statistically significant. For those in jail, the number has not shifted at all. The rate of abuse in state-run juvenile facilities has declined significantly since the 2008–2009 youth survey, in which 12.6 percent of juveniles reported sexual victimization. However, this finding doesn’t have much impact on the total number of people victimized since many fewer are held in juvenile detention than in prisons and jails.

Allen J. Beck, the senior BJS statistician who has been the lead author on all of these studies, tells us the new findings indicate that nearly 200,000 people were sexually abused in American detention facilities in 2011. Although that is fewer than the 209,400 inmates who, in the Justice Department’s estimation, were sexually abused in 2008, the decline has less to do with falling rates of abuse than with a decrease in the number of people going to prison and jail. In the twelve-month period ending midyear 2008, there were 13.6 million admissions to local jails; by midyear 2011, the number had fallen to 11.8 million. Similarly, prison admissions fell from 738,649 to 668,800.

The new studies confirm previous findings that most of those who commit sexual abuse in detention are corrections staff, not inmates. That is true in all types of detention facilities, but especially in juvenile facilities. The new studies also confirm that most victims are abused repeatedly during the course of a year. In juvenile facilities, victims of sexual misconduct by staff members were more likely to report eleven or more instances of abuse than a single, isolated occurrence. By far the two biggest risk factors for sexual abuse in all kinds of detention facilities are being “non-heterosexual,” as the BJS puts it, and having a history of sexual victimization that predates the inmate’s current incarceration.

As in previous studies, the rates of inmate-on-inmate sexual abuse reported by women were dramatically higher than the corresponding rates reported by men: among prisoners, 6.9 percent versus 1.7 percent. Men, on the other hand, reported higher rates than women of sexual misconduct by staff members (most of which is committed by staff of the opposite sex),3 and in juvenile detention, boys reported much higher rates of abuse by staff than girls did—most, again, committed by women.

In our experience, many people do not take sexual abuse committed by women as seriously as abuse committed by men. That includes many corrections officers. We have often heard staff members in women’s facilities refer dismissively to “cat fights” among the inmates and to the tendency of female inmates to replicate “family structures” inside prison. (In one such structure, for example, a woman assumes the role of “protective husband” in return for sexual favors.) But if such family structures involve sexual abuse, then this is a serious human rights issue. Rape by women is just as much of a violation as rape by men, and corrections authorities must start treating it accordingly.

The new National Inmate Survey included a group of inmates whom the BJS had previously been unable to question: sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds being held in adult prisons and jails.4 Some observers have worried that, because juveniles often lack the emotional maturity and street smarts that prison life can demand, they would be especially vulnerable to sexual victimization in adult facilities. Indeed, 4.5 percent of juveniles in prison and 4.7 percent of those in jail reported such victimization—rates that ought to be considered disastrously high. But although these were higher than the rates of sexual abuse reported by adult inmates, the difference was not statistically significant. Moreover, the new National Survey of Youth in Custody found that minors held in juvenile detention suffered sexual abuse at twice the rate of their peers in adult facilities.

Why are juvenile detainees so much safer in adult jails and prisons than in facilities intended for youth? One likely answer is that staff in adult facilities usually recognize the particular vulnerability of the minors in their care and make special efforts to protect them—housing them separately from adults (though often in the torturous conditions of long-term solitary confinement) and strictly limiting any interaction between incarcerated adults and minors.5 More starkly, as we will see, an extreme unprofessionalism has been allowed to persist among juvenile corrections staff in many states, to a degree that is rare in adult facilities.

Juvenile detention facilities are supposed to offer opportunities for education, therapy, and rehabilitation that adult prisons and jails typically lack. In reality, though, many juvenile facilities have been more likely to traumatize the youth they confine than to help them; more likely to convert them into hardened career criminals than to steer them away from crime. But this may now be starting to change. Largely inspired by a model first developed in Missouri, many states have been reforming their juvenile corrections systems in recent years: locking kids up for shorter stretches of time in smaller facilities closer to the communities they come from, and strengthening their emphasis on therapy and rehabilitation. These changes are consistent with the BJS’s explanation for the decreasing rate of sexual abuse in juvenile detention since 2008–2009. As the new youth study reports, “declines in sexual victimization rates were linked to fewer youth held in large facilities, a drop in average exposure time, and rising positive views of facility staff and fairness.”6

That said, some states have evidently pursued reform more enthusiastically and intelligently than others, or, at any rate, more successfully. Young people in twenty-six juvenile facilities surveyed by the new NSYC reported no sexual abuse whatever. Of the fourteen largest of these, twelve were in Colorado, Kentucky, Missouri, or Oregon.7 On the other hand, nine of the thirteen worst-performing facilities were in Georgia, Ohio, or South Carolina—including the three very worst, where, shockingly, around 30 percent of youth reported having been sexually abused in the preceding year.8 California, Illinois, and Kansas also performed notably badly, with statewide rates of sexual abuse in their juvenile facilities of 15 percent or higher.

Some 2.5 percent of all boys and girls in juvenile detention reported having been the victims of inmate-on-inmate abuse. This is not dramatically higher than the corresponding combined male and female rates reported by adults or juveniles in either prison or jail. The reason why the overall rate of sexual abuse (9.5 percent) was so much higher in juvenile detention than in other facilities is the frequency of sexual misconduct by staff. About 7.7 percent of those in juvenile detention reported sexual contact with staff during the preceding year.9 Over 90 percent of these cases involved female staff and teenage boys in custody.

Of the youth who reported sexual activity with staff, 63 percent said that no physical force or other coercion had been involved. Indeed, many of them reported that they had initiated the sexual contact, and about half reported that the staff in question had given them pictures or written them letters. While this may not reflect our typical conception of violent sexual abuse, it should be emphasized that much of the staff sexual misconduct in juvenile detention is precisely that.10 And sexual contact of any kind between staff and inmates is illegal in all fifty states, for good reason: the power imbalance between them is so extreme that it makes genuine consent on the part of inmates impossible.11 The notion of consent is even less applicable when the powerless are minors, making the behavior of staff members in these cases even less pardonable.

Although we don’t know nearly enough about the female staff members who commit sexual abuse,12 preliminary indications suggest that many are quite young themselves and new to their jobs in corrections.13 Some of these women may believe themselves to be well intentioned. Yet it is hard to imagine anything less professional on the part of a corrections officer than having sex with a juvenile in custody.

  1. 1

    We do not mean to suggest that the answers to these questions are obvious. Indeed, one of the greatest virtues of the BJS studies is the way their data challenge stereotypes. For example, some people may assume that most inmate-on-inmate sexual abuse is interracial and, therefore, believe that since most victims of such abuse are white, most of those who commit it must be black or Latino. Others may attribute the fact that most victims of staff sexual misconduct are black to simple racial hostility on the part of the corrections staff. As we will see, new findings about the sexual abuse of juveniles in detention call any such assumptions into question. 

  2. 2

    More precisely, inmates were asked about sexual abuse at their current facility within the previous twelve months or since their arrival. Many inmates, of course, have not been at their current facility for twelve months. The average exposure time for prisoners ranged from 8.1 months in state prisons to 8.8 months in federal prisons; for inmates in jail it was 3.7 months; and for those in juvenile detention it was 6.2 months. 

  3. 3

    See David Kaiser and Lovisa Stannow, “ Prison Rape and the Government,” The New York Review, March 24, 2011. 

  4. 4

    At midyear 2011, there were an estimated 1,700 sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds being held in state prisons and an estimated 5,700 in local jails. Only about 12.3 percent of these juveniles placed in adult facilities were white. 

  5. 5

    Solitary confinement (or “administrative segregation,” as it is often called by corrections officers) can cause devastating, long-term damage to a person’s mental health. And that may be particularly true for minors, whose cognitive and emotional faculties are still developing. 

  6. 6

    By contrast, inmates in smaller adult facilities do not experience significantly lower rates of sexual abuse than those in larger ones. 

  7. 7

    The BJS listed only fourteen juvenile detention facilities as the best-performing in its new National Survey of Youth in Custody, despite the fact that twenty-six reported no sexual abuse, because twelve of these twenty-six facilities did not have enough respondents to give their results the same statistical significance. These twelve smaller facilities included all those surveyed in Delaware, Massachusetts, New York, and the District of Columbia. 

  8. 8

    At the Paulding Regional Youth Detention Center in Georgia, 32.1 percent of the juveniles surveyed reported sexual victimization; at the Circleville Juvenile Correctional Facility in Ohio, the rate was 30.3 percent; and at Birchwood, a juvenile detention facility in South Carolina, it was 29.2 percent. 

  9. 9

    Some juvenile inmates reported sexual abuse both by other inmates and by staff, which is why the rates for these separate categories do not add up to the total. 

  10. 10

    When inmates have sex with staff members, they do so for a variety of reasons. Some are physically overpowered and violated; some are eager for sex; others agree to it with more complicated, mixed motives, including fear and a desire for special privileges. Of inmates in juvenile detention reporting staff sexual misconduct, 20.3 percent said staff had used force or the threat of force, 12.3 percent said they were offered protection, and 21.5 percent said they were given drugs or alcohol to engage in sexual contact. Some respondents reported experiencing more than one of these kinds of pressure. Only 13.6 percent said that they and the staff with whom they were having sex “really cared about each other.” 

  11. 11

    See David Kaiser and Lovisa Stannow, “ The Rape of American Prisoners,” The New York Review, March 11, 2010. 

  12. 12

    Indeed, we don’t know nearly enough about any of the women who commit sexual abuse in detention, whether they are staff or inmates; more research is urgently needed. We hope to learn more about staff perpetrators of sexual abuse in juvenile detention from another study the BJS plans to publish in the coming year on the basis of data generated by the new NSYC

  13. 13

    See Allen J. Beck, Devon B. Adams, and Paul Guerino, “Sexual Violence Reported by Juvenile Correctional Authorities, 2005–06” (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2008), Table 10, p. 6, available at www.BJS.gov/content/pub/pdf/svrjca0506.pdf. This study, however, relies on allegations of sexual assault made to corrections authorities. Most sexual abuse in detention is not reported, and the sample of staff in substantiated incidents analyzed in Table 10 may not be representative of all staff members who sexually abuse inmates in juvenile detention. 

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