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
kaiser_1-102413.jpg
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…


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