Sexual Assault in Prison Is More Common Than You Might Think

by Frank E. Lamothe, III

Sexual assaults in our nation’s prisons and jails is commonplace, and the statistics regarding incidents involving women and juveniles is staggering. A federal law has sought to slow the trend through prevention and education, and several states have followed suit.

Prison Sexual Assault by the Numbers

According to a 2012 Justice Department report, more than 200,000 prisoners are sexually abused in the United States every year. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), an internal bureau of the Justice Department, surveys conducted between 2011 and 2012 reported that 32 people per 1,000 were sexually abused in jail, forty people per 1,000 were sexually abused in prison, and ninety-five youths per 1,000 were sexually abused in juvenile detention facilities.

Female prisoners are 30 times more likely to become a victim of sexual assault than women who are not incarcerated in the United States. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual inmates reported higher rates of sexual abuse than the general population.

Incidents Are Underreported

Prisoners can be understandably reluctant to report abuse. If a prisoner is being abused by another inmate, reporting the occurrence can result in negative consequences at the hands of the perpetrator or his or her allies. Guards and wardens may not take the allegations seriously, and they may not take appropriate steps to protect a reporter from retaliation. Conversely, prisoners who report abuse may be segregated from the general population and kept in solitary confinement or otherwise deleterious conditions.

Because of this, it is difficult to know how many unreported cases of sexual abuse actually occur. Peer-reviewed research studies suggest that rates of sexual victimization in prison could be as high as 41 percent or as low as less than 1 percent, although a recent meta-analysis proposes that an estimate of about 1.9 percent would be a conservative likely average.

Even when a prisoner reports abuse, perpetrators are rarely punished. Only about 10 percent of allegations led to even opening an investigation. Despite denials by state and federal prison authorities, nearly half of the instances reported to the BJS identified corrections officers or staff as the abusers rather than other inmates. Only 1 percent of prison staff who were investigated and found to have engaged in sexual misconduct were ever charged and convicted of a criminal offense.

Given the low chance that the assailant will see any repercussions, and the high cost of reporting, it is likely that the real prisoner abuse occurrence rate is much higher than the reports indicate.

Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA)

In the early 2000s, Human Rights Watch conducted an investigation, obtaining testimony from over 200 prisoners in 37 states. Their findings revealed staggering rates of sexual abuse in incarceration facilities and inadequate education and resources for prevention and remediation. While statistics varied wildly, their most conservative estimate was that at least one in ten inmates had been subjected to sexual abuse while incarcerated.

In response to this report, Congress passed the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) in 2003, but it did not result in immediate action towards its stated mission. Its requirements took effect in 2012. The act requires detention facilities to train staff on prevention, educate incarcerated people about their rights, and provide them with multiple channels for reporting abuse.

Facilities must also screen new arrivals for known risk factors, including prior victimization, and offer incarcerated people access to community rape crisis services. By 2015, 50 of the 56 covered jurisdictions (states and other U.S.-controlled territories) have officially committed to working towards or certified their compliance with the requirements of the Act. The jurisdictions that are unwilling to do so can be punished by losing 5 percent of certain Department of Justice grant funds they would otherwise receive.

Louisiana Prison Sexual Assault Attorneys

While Louisiana has joined the majority of jurisdictions in filing a formal commitment pledging appropriate resources to bring itself into compliance with PREA requirements, two of the six holdouts are its neighbor states of Texas and Florida.

If you, a loved one, or someone you know has been the victim of sexual assault, rape, or sexual abuse while incarcerated, compensation in the form of damages from a civil lawsuit may be available. Please contact us today – we’re here to help.

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