E-NEWS - 2012

Press Release: New Report From the Department of Justice: One In Ten State Prisoners Sexually Abused

Bureau of Justice Statistics study confirms national crisis of sexual abuse in U.S. detention, exposes systemic problem of staff retaliation, and shatters prisoner rape stereotypes

Media Contact: Jesse Lerner-Kinglake
(office) 213-384-1400, ext. 113
(cell) 424-230-4540
E-mail: jkinglake@justdetention.org

Washington, D.C., May 17, 2012 
— A Department of Justice study released this morning provides the most dramatic evidence yet of a nationwide, systemic crisis of sexual victimization in U.S. prisons, jails, and community corrections facilities. Of the former state prisoners surveyed by the Justice Department, 9.6 percent reported being sexually abused during their most recent period of detention, according to “Sexual Victimization Reported by Former State Prisoners, 2008.” Gay and bisexual prisoners were disproportionately targeted in both men’s and women’s prisons; a shocking 39 percent of gay male inmates reported being assaulted by other prisoners.

Today’s study also exposes the overt and widespread retaliation by corrections officials against inmates who report abuse. Almost half (46.3 percent) of the prisoners who reported to a corrections official that they had been sexually abused by a staff member were themselves written up for an infraction. When prisoners reported sexual abuse by other inmates, they were just as likely to be punished themselves (28.5 percent) as to get to talk to an investigator (28.3 percent) or to see their abuser punished (28.6 percent). Additionally, more than a third (37 percent) of prisoners who reported to staff that they had been abused by another prisoner said that facility staff did not respond at all.

“With such blatant retaliation for reporting abuse, it’s no wonder the vast majority of prisoner rape survivors choose to remain silent,” said Lovisa Stannow, Executive Director of Just Detention International. “The failure of many corrections officials to treat sexual abuse within their facilities as a serious crime — and the cynicism of punishing those who report having been abused — is simply stunning.”

Prisoner rape survivor and member of Just Detention International’s Board of Directors, Garrett Cunningham, explained: “I was too scared to file a written complaint against my rapist because I feared retaliation from other prison officials. Instead, I wrote the Internal Affairs Department asking to meet with an investigator. They never addressed my concerns and failed to take precautions to protect me.”

Contrary to common cultural stereotypes, about half of all prisoners reporting abuse were victimized by corrections staff. Female staff were by far the most likely perpetrators. Among survivors of staff sexual misconduct, 79 percent were males reporting sexual activity with female staff. Additionally, female inmates were more than three times more likely to be victimized by another prisoner than were male inmates (13.7 percent versus 4.2 percent).

“Today’s report reaffirms the crisis of sexual abuse in U.S. detention, and of the government’s utter failure to protect people in its custody,” said Stannow. “With this study in hand, we must begin a serious discussion about the large numbers of female corrections officials who abuse male inmates, and about the high numbers of female prisoners who sexually abuse other inmates. Sexual abuse is a crime and has to be taken equally seriously regardless of the gender of the perpetrator and regardless of the custody status of the victim.”

Other key findings of today’s Department of Justice report include:

  • More than one third (34 percent) of male prisoners identifying as bisexual and almost two of every five (39 percent) identifying as gay or homosexual reported being assaulted by another prisoner. Female prisoners identifying as bisexual or lesbian were twice as likely to be abused by staff as prisoners identifying as heterosexual (8 percent for both bisexual and lesbian inmates versus 4 percent for heterosexual inmates). The study did not ask about gender identity and the report therefore does not specify rates of abuse of transgender inmates. It is likely, however, that some heterosexual transgender prisoners identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual in order to have their abuse counted under the common category of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT).
  • Nearly a third of prisoners (32.4 percent) reported staff sexual harassment during showers and searches or while undressing — harassment that did not meet the Department of Justice’s threshold for sexual abuse. Such widespread staff sexual harassment demonstrates an appalling lack of respect for inmates.
  • The vast majority of prisoners abused by staff were abused multiple times (86 percent).
  • Almost one in five boys under the age of 18 (18.6 percent) held in adult facilities were sexually abused by staff.
  • Among prisoners tested for HIV, a significantly higher percentage of those who had been sexually victimized by other inmates (6.5 percent) or by staff (4.6 percent) were HIV-positive than those who had not been victimized (2.6 percent). The report notes that it did not gather data on whether former prisoners contracted HIV while in custody.  

Today’s report was produced by the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics and mandated by the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) of 2003. Its findings highlight the importance of the forthcoming national standards to prevent and address prisoner rape, also mandated by PREA. Those much-delayed uniform standards will be binding on prisons, jails, and several other types of detention facilities.

“Prisoner rape shatters lives and rips apart communities,” said Stannow. “Yet this abuse is preventable. Today’s report shows clearly the need for a massive culture change inside our prisons and jails. It also demonstrates the urgent need for strong government regulations, requiring corrections facilities to do their job and ensure the safety and dignity of all prisoners.”


To read the Department of Justice report, “Sexual Victimization Reported by Former State Prisoners, 2008,” click here.

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