Prison Rape: the challenge of prevention and enforcement
Prison rape is not only a physically and psychologically damaging
experience, it is also a formidable challenge for correctional departments
attempting to secure basic human rights within correctional institutions.
A study of four Midwestern states in 2000 found that about 1 in
5 inmates experiences some form of pressured or coerced sexual conduct or rape
while incarcerated (Struckman-Johnson & Struckman-Johnson, 2000).
According to Stephen Donaldson, the president of the organization
Stop Prisoner Rape and previous inmate victim of prison rape,
roughly 300,000 inmates are sexually abused or raped each year in prison (Donaldson
1995). Courts not only recognize that "homosexual rape is commonplace"
in prison, but they also make a point to depart from sentencing
guidelines if they believe that a convicted felon is particular
vulnerable to rape, and fits the "prisoner rape victim profile"
(Man and Cronan 2001).
Besides its traumatizing effects, and lasting physical and emotional
damage, prison prostitution, many times coerced, affects approximately
500 to 5,000 of "customers" in US prisons annually, in addition to
the approximately 250 to 2,500 of prostitutes themselves (Kleiman,
Mockler 1987). Prison sex, including rape, affects at least 2,000
prisoners annually. Understandably, allegations are not as high
as informal estimates and self-reports. For every 1,000 inmates
in Texas there are 4 rape allegations, the highest rate of prison
rape in any state, compared to the national average of 1.05 per
1,000. A total of 554 inmates in Texas prison reported being raped
in 2004 (Houston Chronicle 16 October 2005). Consult the calculator
on prison rape allegations above for a more comprehensive outlook
on the prevalence of prison rape allegations in the US.
While prison rape awareness campaigns have increased inmate confidence
that pleas will be heard, and prison rape allegations have jumped
200% from 2000 to 2004, the state of Texas still substantiates far
fewer rape allegations than most states. Thus, many of these apparently
positive increases in allegations are being ignored. In the 6 year
period between 1999 and 2005, the Special Prosecution Unit of the
Texas Department of Criminal Justice investigated a total of 1,054
inmate-on-inmate rapes resulting in 8 sentences, and 232 guard-on-inmate
rapes resulting in 43 sentences (Houston Chronicle 16 Oct 2005).
Click insideprison's state
comparison to see the number of prison-rape allegations forwarded
by state prison inmates across the country.
A study conducted in Australian prisons found that prison rape
was experienced by at least 10% of male prisoners aged 18-25, with
a small number of these victims reporting sexual assault on a daily
basis. However, author Jeremy Prichard (2000) has contended that
the incidence and frequency of prison rapes depends upon the unique
social climate and institutional culture of the specific prison,
and whether or not the prison houses certain individuals who may
promote or spread sexually-abusive attitudes and the acceptance
of prison rape within the prison subculture. Prison rapists, according
to Prichard, sexually-abuse other inmates to gain a more powerful
position in the prison sexual hierarchy, known as the "pecking
order," and it is these "prisoner leaders" that must
be targeted by correctional staff wishing to curb the incidence
of prison rape. It is these individuals that "rule the roost,"
and maintain their dominance over their sex-slaves as an expression
of their power and masculinity.
While the nature of prison rape has become more violent since the 1950's, it is still commonplace, and generally, the longer an inmate serves time in prison, the more likely he is to engage in homosexual acts of any kind. As Irwin (1980) notes, from his interviews with inmates at Soledad Prison in California,
"It was [assumed] that after one year behind walls, it was permissable to kiss a kid or a queen. After five years it was okay to jerk them off to "get 'em hot." After ten years, "making tortillas" or "flip-flopping" was acceptable, and after twenty years, anything was fine."
Perpetrator and Victim Profiles
According to Daniel Lockwood (1978), there are "aggressors"
for prison sexual assault, and there are "targets," otherwise
known as "Fags" (natural homosexuals), "Queens"
(flaunting transsexual), "Kids" (submissive, young sex-slaves),
or "Punks" (resistant males that put up a fight at first
but who eventually submits). Target-prisoners are "physically
slight, young, white," and generally "nonviolent,"
often experiencing higher rates of psychological distress and attempted
suicide in prison. Criminal history is otherwise very similar to
non-targets. Target inmates are first victimized early in their
sentences, usually within 16 weeks of initial confinement. When
a target is raped on the first or second day of his sentence, there
is a high possibility that he will become a sex-slave in the long-term,
a process referred to as "turning out" an inmate.
Physical appearance is essential in determining the target of a prison
rape, as it is often used as a yardstick for assessing how "successful"
a rape attempt will be. In all cases, the younger, smaller-built
inmates are targeted more easily, or those appearing most feminine.
White inmates are targeted more than Black inmates, because race is used
a method of rationalizing one's violent domination, as in the case
of minority-cultured inmates who feel that their oppression should
become someone else's. In addition, there is greater solidarity
among racial minorities in prison than there is among White majorities,
meaning that Blacks, Hispanics, and Chicanos, for example, will
"look out for their own" more often than Whites will.
Often, the younger, weaker, and less initiated inmates are tricked, forced, or extorted into the role of a target (or "insertee"), sometimes by their own lack of self-confidence or suggestibility to assuming a homosexual identity. This susceptibility to the homosexual role can often last well after release and be permanent. Likewise, the prisoners who take on the opposite role (known as the "aggressors", the "jockers", or the "wolves"), can also grow fond of their new masculine "inserter" identity and develop a strong preference for homosexual relationships on the outside after release (Irwin, 1980).
Targets can often provoke violence preceding or during the commission
of the rape by engaging in behaviours characteristic of "victim-precipitated
homicide." In this case, targets rationalize their resistance
by arguing that they are not homosexual, and prefer to appear "tough"
or masculine. Many targets are repulsed at the thought of homosexual
intercourse, while at the same time believe there are few acceptable
options at their disposal. Following rapes, psychological crises
are common in about 30% of victims. These include suicidal thoughts,
anxiety, fear, depression, hopelessness, extreme suspicion, and
isolation. There is also a fear of being stigmatized by other inmates
as homosexual. Some targets adapt by joining "cliques,"
for purposes of protection, solidarity, and comfort.
It is unfortunate that many inmates must rely on themselves for
protection, and not on correctional staff members, whose duty it
is to protect prisoners. With an increase in self-protection groups
among inmates, some of which may become especially influential and
form gangs, there is also the possibility of increased skepticism,
distrust, and resistance to correctional staff members and institutional
rules. It is always in the correctional facility's best interest
to establish a harmonious relationship between staff and inmates,
yet the threat of prison rape, gone unchecked, can pose a threat
to this already tenuous relationship.
According to the Houston Chronicle, many inmates who make the mistake
of accepting requests for forced sex from "protectors"
inexorably become "punks" who will later be preyed upon
by sexual predators. Such a situation was the focus of the trial
of Roderick Keith Johnson, mentioned above, who sustained years
of sexual abuse, and being "traded among gangs such as the
Gangster Disciples, Mexican Mafia and Mandingo Warriors" (Houston
Chronicle 16 Oct 2005).
Aggressors usually work in "packs," large groups with
strength in numbers. Aggressors use physical violence in 50% of
rapes in prison, and much of this violence is precipitated by communication-deficits
between targets and their aggressors, what was mentioned above as
"victim-precipitated homicide." Aggressors usually possess
a low education-level and low socioeconomic status, experienced
development in a dysfunctional family headed by a single mother,
and have a previous history of violent offending. A Washington Post
study on rape in prison found that because many rapists are convicted of violent
offences, they are often temporarily placed in cell blocks next
to those awaiting trial on nonviolent charges (Man and Cronan 2001).
In addition, it all too easy in prison to assume the human character
designated by the prison culture: that of aggression, of masculinity,
and of predation.
Similar to the causes precipitated by a super-masculine prison
environment are theories on how gang-precipitated prison rape resembles
the slavery-era "lynch-mob," formed by subcultural aggression
and attitudinal acceptance of sexual abuse. However, while structural
or ecological issues in specific correctional facilities may indicate
increased likelihood or opportunity to commit sexual assault, these
features do not make the distinction between rapists and non-rapists.
Nevertheless, institutional factors do indeed influence the prevalence
of rape, and are being targeted in rape prevention efforts in the
form of staff-awareness campaigns, increased surveillance, immediate
post-rape counselling, and collective placement decisions.
According to New South Wales Magistrate David Heilpern, "Sexual
assault in prison is not about sex...it is about power," in
which "the penis is a weapon of control," leaving "no
viable bruises or scars," and a unique attempt to enslave individuals
by using shame, stigma, and terror made all the more extreme in
a prison environment. Australia, like the United States, Canada,
and the UK, is confronted with a growing prison rape problem, and
the primary objective right now is generating more awareness. But
in addition to awareness, Heilpern also notes that the community
must also take some responsibility for rape in prison, because
it is the community, as well as the victim, that will suffer from
the improperly-rehabilitated, traumatized, possibly-infected, and overly-suspicious individuals
Measuring the incidence of rape within prison is a difficult
task, since the distinction between consensual, homosexual sex and
nonconsensual, coercive sex is often blurred. Many convicts, by
virtue of their social isolation, loneliness, and insecurity produced
by their confinement, actively seek out male partners of their own
volition. Correctional staff definitions of rape also vary widely,
considering the heterogeneity of attitudes among officers. Those
who feel close to many inmates define prison rape very liberally,
whereas those who maintain distance from inmates may define prison
rape more narrowly, and may instead include violent rape under the
category of violent abuse. Standardization of the definitions and scope of sexual victimization in prison would lead to more certain outcomes and penalties, and would allow better research to be conducted on its prevalence across jurisdictions.
In addition, there is a degree of skepticism towards prisoner allegations.
By nature of their secretive operation, evidence is often lacking
in prison rape cases, and prisoners have little bargaining power
and jury support in court. This is of particular concern to those
filing lawsuits, who must first pass the "deliberate indifference"
test proving that correctional officials "know of and disregard
an excessive risk to inmate health or safety" (Man and Cronan
2001). Inmate Roderick Keith Johnson, raped on a regular basis for
one and a half years beginning on the first day that he stepped
into Allred Prison in 2000, went to a federal court to
convict prison officials for failing to protect him from cruel and
unusual punishment. The quality of his evidence was called into
question, despite the fact that many transfers and protection-operations
for prisoners frequently lack proof of victimization.
On a more positive note, concern for prison rape seems to be increasing.
The first Prison Rape laws were adopted by 18 states in 1990, and
by 2006, all states but Vermont now have such laws prohibiting prison
rape. In 1999, the Los-Angeles-based organization Stop Prisoner
Rape formed, while the American University Washington College of
Law and the National Institute of Corrections implemented a joint
program to more effectively prevent rape within prison. In 2003,
President Bush signed the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which created
a commission to increase detection, prevention, and reduction of
prisoner rape. Specifically, it:
- developed national standards to prevent, detect and reduce sexual
violence in prisons
- increased correctional staff's access to data on sexual violence
- made prison officials more accountable for inmate safety
Furthermore, in 2005, sexual-abuse among staff in federal prisons
was given stiffer penalties. It appears that the future may hold
more hope for prevention of prison rape, but, as noted above, it
still requires the participation and enthusiasm of the community
in order to take effect. In addition, awareness is only half the
battle. Implementation and practical and attitudinal support at
the institutional level is another challenge altogether, and may
require incentive levels for correctional officials who successfully
keep rape allegations low, or penalties to those who knowingly allow
allegations to remain high.
The following charts show prison rape allegations do not depend on gender. There are just as many, indeed more, investigations underway of female staff members abusing male inmates as there are male staff members abusing female inmates.
For a critical review of the literature and evidence on the efficacy
of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, see: www.nicic.org/Library/019813.
Some facts on sexual violence among inmates reported to correctional
- 8,210 allegations of sexual violence reported
Nationwide in 2004
- 42% of allegations involved staff sexual misconduct;
37%, inmate-on-inmate nonconsensual sexual acts;
11%, staff sexual harassment; and 10%, abusive sexual
- Correctional authorities reported 3.15 allegations of
sexual violence per 1,000 inmates held in 2004.
Correctional authorities substantiated nearly 2,100
incidents of sexual violence, 30% of completed
- Males comprised 90% of victims and perpetrators of
inmate-on-inmate nonconsensual sexual acts in prison and
- In state prisons, 69% of victims of staff sexual misconduct were male, while 67% of perpetrators were female.
- In local jails, 70% of victims of staff sexual misconduct were female; 65% of perpetrators, male.
Bureau of Justice Statistics. Sexual Violence Reported by Correctional
Authorities, 2004. http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/abstract/svrca04.htm
Cindy Struckman-Johnson & David Struckman-Johnson, Sexual Coercion
Rates in Seven Midwestern Prisons for Men, 80 The Prison Journal
379 (2000), available at http://www.spr.org/pdf/struckman.pdf .
Donaldson, Stephen. "Can We Put an End to Inmate Rape",
USA Today, May 1, 1995.
The Houston Chronicle 16 October 2005.
Christopher D Man; John P Cronan. (2001). "Forecasting sexual
abuse in prison: The prison subculture of masculinity as a backdrop
for "deliberate indifference"." Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology
Irwin, John. 1980. Prisons in Turmoil. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. 277p.