New Federal Report: Sexual Abuse Plagues U.S. Prisons and Jails

Bureau of Justice Statistics study confirms epidemic of sexual abuse in detention -- underscores need for binding national standards

WASHINGTON, D.C., August 26, 2010 -- A study released today by the Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) estimates that at least 88,500 adults held in U.S. prisons and jails were sexually abused at their current facility in the past year.

Today's BJS report, "Sexual Victimization in Prisons and Jails Reported by Inmates, 2008-09," is based on a nationwide survey of inmates in federal and state prisons and in county jails. According to the BJS, 4.4 percent of prison inmates and 3.1 percent of jail inmates reported having experienced one or more incidents of sexual victimization by other inmates and/or staff at their current facility in the preceding 12 months. While some suffered a single assault, others were raped repeatedly: on average, victims were abused three to five times over the course of the year. The survey did not include minors held in these facilities, but in a similar BJS report released in January 2010, more than 12 percent of youth in juvenile detention reported sexual abuse, or one in eight.

The BJS surveys are snapshots, reaching only inmates present at a prison or jail on a particular day. The annual number of admissions to county jails is many times higher than the average daily jail population, meaning that only a fraction of detainees were surveyed. "Together with what we know about prevalence in juvenile facilities, this means that the true number of people sexually abused in detention every year is much higher than 88,500," explained Lovisa Stannow, Executive Director of Just Detention International.

Inmates with a history of sexual abuse and those who identify as gay or transgender were most commonly targeted for victimization. While the reported rate of inmate-on-inmate abuse among female inmates was more than twice as high as that reported by male inmates, staff sexual misconduct was more prevalent in men's than in women's facilities. Strikingly, the new BJS study confirms again that men and women in both prisons and jails were more likely to be abused by corrections staff than by other inmates. Staff perpetrators were predominantly of the opposite sex from the victim.

As mandated by the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) of 2003, which called for the BJS inmate surveys, today's report identified facilities with the highest and the lowest rates of sexual abuse. The Fluvanna Correctional Center, a women's prison in Virginia, was the only facility to rank among those with the highest rates of both inmate-on-inmate abuse and staff sexual misconduct. Three of the five male prisons with the highest rates of inmate-on-inmate abuse were run by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, while the four jails with the worst rates were in Orleans Parish (LA), Madison County (AL), Miami-Dade (FL), and Houston County (AL). Facilities run by the New York State Department of Correctional Services had the highest rates of staff sexual abuse for both men's and women's prisons. The list of jails with high rates of staff sexual misconduct was topped by Caroline County Jail in Maryland, Eastern Shore Regional Jail in Virginia, and Clallam County Correctional Facility in Washington.

"Not surprisingly, some agencies fared consistently worse than others," said Stannow. "Today's data show clearly that departments of corrections lacking committed leadership, strong policies, and sound practices run prisons and jails where sexual abuse flourishes."

For the past 14 months, the Justice Department has been reviewing proposed national standards aimed at eliminating sexual violence in detention, which were also mandated by PREA. These standards include limitations on cross-gender supervision. They also call for staff training and inmate education, the provision of medical and mental health treatment to sexual abuse victims, and regular independent, external audits to hold agencies accountable for failures to keep inmates safe from abuse. By law, Attorney General Eric Holder had until June 23, 2010 to ratify binding standards, but he missed this deadline and no new date has been set. Once the Attorney General issues final standards, they will be immediately binding on federal facilities. States and localities will have one year to get into compliance or risk losing five percent of their corrections-related federal funding.

"Sexual abuse in detention is a stain on our society," said Stannow. "Every day that the Attorney General doesn't finalize the national standards is another day of anguish among prisoner rape survivors, of preventable safety breaches in prisons and jails, and of significant spending of taxpayers' money on medical treatment, investigations, and litigation that could have been avoided."


Just Detention International is a human rights organization that seeks to end sexual violence in all forms of detention.

Please click here to read about the 40 survivors of prisoner rape who wrote to JDI last week:

Please click here for the Bureau of Justice Statistics website:

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