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The Persistent Problem of Sexual Assault in Prison

Abuse continues, and oversight is getting harder.


A national survey involving hundreds of thousands of inmates of jails, prisons, and detention centers throughout the U.S. has brought researchers to one undeniable conclusion: Sexual assault in prisons is a shockingly widespread problem.

New editions of the National Inmate Survey and the National Survey of Youth in Custody were released this year by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and analyzed by David Kaiser and Lovisa Stannow in an essay, “The Shame of Our Prisons: New Evidence,” for the current issue of The New York Review of Books. The Review may seem a slightly unusual venue for such a topic, but Kaiser and Stannow, who are both affiliated with the non-profit organization Just Detention International, have been covering the surveys' findings for the magazine for the past three years.

“As recently as five years ago, American corrections officials almost uniformly denied that rape in prison was a widespread problem,” write Kaiser and Stannow. “But all this has changed. What we have now that we didn’t then is good data.”

These numbers may seem low when taken as a percentage out of 100. But a consideration of just how many people are currently imprisoned in America today reveals the scope of the problem.

That good data points to a dark reality for thousands of inmates—especially those in juvenile detention facilities. Sixteen- and 17-year-old inmates are often held in separate sections within adult prisons, but younger inmates are typically kept in different facilities altogether, dedicated to juveniles. The have found that corruption, unprofessionalism, and abuse is more widespread in the juvenile facilities than it is in adult jails and prisons. Specifically, Kaiser and Stannow said, “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.”

The abuse and assault in these examples came more often from the staff than from fellow inmates, according to the survey. Almost eight percent of all survey-takers in juvenile detention facilities said they had had sexual contact with a member of the staff. This is always categorized as abuse (and illegal in every state), even in cases where the inmate says the sex is consensual, because of the inherent power imbalance at play—not to mention the age difference in these cases. Perhaps most surprisingly, of those cases, 90 percent of them involved teenage boys and female adult staff.

Adult facilities don’t escape these problems, either. The latest surveys indicate that, while 9.5 percent of juvenile inmates reported sexual abuse within the past year, 3.2 percent of inmates in adult jails and four percent of inmates in state and federal prisons reported abuse in the same time period. These numbers may seem low when taken as a percentage out of 100. But a consideration of just how many people are currently imprisoned in America today—in jails, state and federal prisons, in immigration detention facilities, in military detention facilities, and on and on—reveals the scope of the problem. The lead author of the studies, the statistician Allen J. Beck, has extrapolated from his results that, in the latest year he measured, there were nearly 200,000 inmates suffering sexual assault and abuse.

One bright spot in the surveys’ results was that there are some institutions that don’t seem to suffer from the same evils: Inmates in a dozen large juvenile facilities located in Colorado, Kentucky, Missouri, and Oregon reported no sexual abuse at all. But still, the facilities that have previously shown the most rampant abuse are continuing to show it.

“The consistency of the findings from these surveys is overwhelming,” Kaiser and Stannow continue. “The more closely one looks at these studies, the more persuasive their findings become. Very few corrections professionals now publicly dispute them.”

One of the most disturbing aspects of Kaiser and Stannow’s summary, aside from the statistics themselves, is the fact that the statistics are getting harder to collect. The National Inmate Surveys were set up as a condition of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which passed in 2003. But not all facilities are actually required by law to allow access to the researchers. (“Jails are not under federal authority and officials at some of them, apparently foreseeing that they would perform badly and reluctant to have their mismanagement exposed, have simply refused to let their inmates take the survey,” write Kaiers and Stannow.) The authors report that every year, the number of facilities refusing to participate has doubled.

The troubling feedback loop here is obvious: As more abuse is exposed, more facilities will bow out. As more abuse-prone facilities bow out, the overall results will get more skewed, the studies will either become devalued or they will be used as evidence that sexual abuse isn’t a widespread and persistent problem for inmates in the U.S. Clearly, more consistent and legally-mandated oversight is necessary here. The worst-performing jails and prisons are, of course, the ones that most need to confront what’s going wrong, and to figure out how to address the situation, now.