When corrections officials make serious efforts to protect the safety of all people in their custody, they can greatly reduce sexual abuse behind bars. While anyone can be raped in detention, it is no mystery who the most vulnerable prisoners are. Research by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), an arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, has shown clearly that inmates who have a mental illness, suffered prior sexual victimization, or are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) are at exceptionally high risk for abuse.

LGBT Detainees

U.S. prisons and jails are deeply sexist and homophobic institutions, where LGBT inmates and anyone perceived as being “feminine” are singled out for sexual abuse and harassment. Once victimized, an inmate is labeled as a “bitch” or “punk,” while, conversely, the abuser is seen as reinforcing his masculinity. The devastating impact of this toxic culture is reflected in the BJS’s national inmate surveys. In its study of adult facilities, released in May 2013, the BJS study found that LGBT prisoners are ten times more likely to be sexually abused than straight prisoners. A 2012 BJS report revealed that a staggering 39 percent of gay male former state inmates reported being abused by another inmate. LGBT youth, too, are targets for abuse behind bars. In juvenile corrections facilities, more than one in ten LGBT youth are victimized by other inmates -- seven times greater than the rate facing straight youth.

JDI receives letters from LGBT prisoner rape survivors on a daily basis. Most of them have not only endured sexual abuse, but also the indifference, hostility, and entrenched homophobia of corrections staff who fail to take seriously their responsibility to keep inmates safe. One survivor in a Texas state prison who asked for protection was told, "You're an admitted homosexual. You can't be raped. We're denying your request. Learn how to defend yourself."

Survivors of Prior Sexual Abuse

In men’s and women’s facilities alike, inmates who have a history of prior sexual abuse are very often subjected to yet more abuse behind bars. Sexual predators in prisons and jails target inmates who they believe are likely to yield to their demands -- and unlikely to speak out about the abuse. According to the BJS, prisoners who had been sexually abused earlier in life were 20 times more likely to be abused than those who had not. Worse still, many inmates who have been sexually assaulted behind bars are marked as fair game for repeated abuse and harassment. Indeed, the BJS has found that, on average, a survivor of sexual abuse behind bars is assaulted three to five times over the course of a year.
It is also common for victimized detainees in youth facilities to be assaulted again and again. Disturbingly, the BJS found that more youth in custody reported at least ten incidents of staff sexual misconduct than reported just one such incident. Youth detainees who reported being abused at a prior facility were more likely than not to be sexually assaulted at their current one.

In addition to being especially vulnerable to prisoner rape, people with a history of prior sexual abuse are more likely to be incarcerated in the first place. In their letters to JDI, many prisoner rape survivors write about childhood trauma. Robin, who was sexually assaulted repeatedly by staff during her incarceration, said that, “Being sexually abused as a child made me an easy target. It is in our file, and the guards can see that. We are easy targets because we learn from a young age to keep our mouths shut.”  A former warden of a California women’s prison estimated that 90 percent of the inmates at her facility had been abused prior to their detention. This anecdotal evidence is borne out by the research. Several studies of women’s facilities, for example, have found that more than half of the inmates were sexually abused in the community.

Inmates with a Mental Illness

Recent research has shed new light on the crisis of sexual abuse facing people who suffer from a mental illness. In its 2013 report on adult facilities, the BJS showed that prisoners with symptoms of severe psychological distress were nine times more likely as those without any such symptoms to be sexually abused by another inmate. Among jail inmates, people who exhibit symptoms of severe psychological distress were preyed upon at five times the rate as those who do not.

The report also confirms that people who are mentally ill make up a disproportionate percentage of the inmate population. Astonishingly, more than a quarter of all jail inmates surveyed by the BJS have a serious mental illness. As the study makes painfully clear, instead of getting the help they need and deserve, these inmates are being subjected to horrific abuse.

The PREA Standards

The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) standards, released in 2012, contain groundbreaking provisions to protect vulnerable detainees. Many of these measures were the result of years of advocacy by JDI and prisoner rape survivors themselves. For example, the PREA standards require detention staff to screen inmates for known risk factors – such as having a history of prior abuse -- and house vulnerable inmates separately from those determined to be more likely to commit abuse. To read more on how the PREA standards are a critical human rights tool, see JDI’s factsheet.