Alan Elsner, US Justice Dept. conducts first prison rape report, Reuters, July 31, 2005.
WASHINGTON, July 31 (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Justice released its first statistical report on prison rape and abuse on Sunday, but acknowledged that much sexual violence in prisons was probably never reported.
In a report required by the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act, the Justice Department's statistical arm measured sexual violence officially reported to prison authorities last year.
The report concluded that there were an estimated 8,210 incidents in the nation's prisons and jails, which hold about 2.1 million inmates.
But the report itself warned that there was no reliable estimate of unreported sexual victimization behind bars.
"Administrative records cannot alone provide reliable estimates of sexual violence," wrote statisticians Allen Beck and Timothy Hughes. "Due to fear of reprisal from perpetrators, a code of silence among inmates, personal embarrassment and lack of trust in staff, victims are often reluctant to report incidents to correctional authorities."
The prison rape act also established a commission that is due to begin hearing testimony on the issue next month. It also mandated better training for prison staff and the establishment of a safe reporting system for victims.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics is working on a computer questionnaire inmates will be able to answer anonymously without fear of reprisal. They expect to test it in 10 state and five federal prisons later this year.
They also plan to survey former and soon-to-be-released inmates who might be more likely to answer questions without fear of reprisal.
"They have a lot more reporting to do. Once the anonymous survey is completed, I think we'll see numbers that are far higher," said Kara Gotsch of the American Civil Liberties Union prison project.
Lovisa Stannow of Stop Prisoner Rape said: "This report represents an important step forward because there is such a lack of reliable data. But these numbers are the tip of the iceberg because most victims never bother to report their abuse."
Nearly 42 percent of the reported allegations of sexual violence involved staff sexual misconduct toward inmates; 37 percent were nonconsensual sexual acts by inmates on fellow prisoners; 11 percent involved sexual harassment by staff that fell short of actual abuse and the rest abusive sexual contacts by inmates that fell short of actual rape.
In state-operated juvenile facilities, which are often required by law to record all allegations and report them to law enforcement authorities and child protective services, allegations of staff sexual misconduct ran proportionately almost 10 times higher than for adult facilities.
Of allegations made in state prisons for which investigations were complete, 18 percent of inmate on inmate rapes were substantiated. Thirty percent of allegations of staff sexual misconduct were substantiated.
"The most common outcome of investigations of sexual violence was a determination of lack of evidence," the report found. Prison activists say it was very difficult to prove a rape unless there was actual DNA evidence. Otherwise, it was usually one inmate's word against another, or an inmate's word against that of a prison guard.
Women, who are less than 10 percent of the prison population, made up almost half of the victims of abusive sexual contact in state prisons.
By far the highest number of rape allegations happened in Texas with 550. Of those, only 13 were substantiated.