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 conditions make prisoner rape likely? 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 PBS show Frontline, documenting harsh conditions in Department of Homeland Security (DHS) detention facilities, recently [told the story] (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/lost-in-detention/) of an immigrant whom it called “Mary.” During a routine traffic stop in Florida, police discovered that Mary’s visa had expired. They sent her to the Willacy Detention Center in southern Texas; there, over the course of three months, she was repeatedly raped by one of her guards. Finally, unable to endure further abuse and told by other detainees that she would face retaliation if she complained, she stopped fighting deportation and asked to be sent home to Canada, leaving behind four young children who were born in the US. It has now been two years since she has seen them.
Perhaps the worst part of this immensely distressing story is how unexceptional it is. There is abundant evidence that rape is a systemic problem in our immigration detention facilities—for women, for men, and, as the Women’s Refugee Commission has documented, for children.
Back in 1998, Jan Lastocy was serving time for attempted embezzlement in a Michigan prison. Her job was working at a warehouse for a nearby men’s prison. She got along well with two of the corrections officers who supervised her, but she thought the third was creepy. “He was always talking about how much power he had,” she said, “how he liked being able to write someone a ticket just for looking at him funny.” Then, one day, he raped her.
A new report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) provides grim reaffirmation of something we already knew: sexual violence is epidemic within our country’s prisons and jails. According to the report, 64,500 of the inmates who were in a state or federal prison on the day the latest BJS survey was administered had been sexually abused at their current facility within the previous year, as had 24,000 of those who were in a county jail that day—a total of 88,500 people.
In fact, as we’ve explained before, the true national total is much higher. The BJS numbers don’t include thousands who we know are sexually abused in juvenile detention and other kinds of corrections facilities every year, nor do they account for the constant turnover among jailed detainees. Stays in jail are typically short, and several times as many people pass through jail in a year as are held there on any given day. Overall, we can confidently say that well over 100,000 people are sexually abused in American detention facilities every year.
As three recent studies by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) show, prisoners are raped with terrible frequency in the United States.[^1] We still don’t know exactly how many people are sexually abused behind bars every year, but we do know that the number is much larger than 100,000.
Adults who want to have sex with children sometimes look for jobs that will make it easy. They want authority over kids, but no very onerous supervision; they also want positions that will make them seem more trustworthy than their potential accusers. Such considerations have infamously led quite a few …
When Troy Erik Isaac was first imprisoned in California, his cellmate made the introductions for both of them. “He said to me, ‘Your name is gonna be Baby Romeo, and I’m Big Romeo.’ He was saying he would be my man.” Troy was twelve at the time. A skinny, terrified little kid, he accepted the prisoner’s bargain being imposed on him: protection for sex. He wasn’t protected, though. Soon he was attacked and raped at night by another cellmate, a sixteen-year-old. He told staff he was suicidal, hoping to be placed in solitary confinement, but they ignored him; the rapes continued.