What do Wardens Think of Prison Sex?

A recent study in the Prison Journal found that wardens and correctional administrators did not believe that there was a significant prevalence of either consensual or coerced sexual activity in their prison. In fact, coercive or nonconsensual sex is often perceived to be very rare, perhaps because wardens tend to conceptually link prison violence or misconduct with prison rape. Wardens were asked three questions, including,

  1. "What percentage of inmate sexual assaults do you believe you personally know about?”
  2. “In the past 12 months, what percentage of the inmates in your institution do you believe have engaged in sexual activities with other inmates because of pressure and/or force, that is,
    against their will?” and
  3. "In the past 12 months, what percentage of the inmates in your institution do you believe have engaged in sexual activities with other inmates consensually?”

Surprisingly, neither the characteristics of the institution nor the demographic characteristics of the wardens themselves explain why wardens underestimate the incidence of coerced sex or prison rape. Characteristics of the warden that had no effect included education level and number of months in office, while characteristics of the institution included overcrowding, security-level, gender composition of the inmates, and the number of inmates.

However, in the case of estimating the prevalence of consensual prison sex, as opposed to prison rape, wardens who were either female or non-White did in fact believe there were significantly more instances of prison sex than their White-male counterparts, a finding the researchers explain as stemming from females and minorities being less homophobic and therefore more accepting of diverse sexual practices among their inmates. In addition to the demographic variables above, wardens also perceive a higher incidence of consensual prison sex when their facility is understaffed, since there is a general belief that less supervision will encourage more illicit behaviour among inmates (including consensual sex).

In all likelihood, it is correctional training and education that is to blame in failing to promote full awareness of sex in prisons. This is particularly important when considering statistics of prison rape, notably those of the the organization Stop Prisoner Rape and those of past Prison Journal studies which estimate prison rape occurs in as much as 1 in 5 inmates sometime during their incarceration (Struckman-Johnson & Struckman-Johnson 2000). (See our section on Prison Rape.) While it is fortunate that training, job demands, workplace stress, and "warden culture" are fairly consistent and reliable across institutions, these particular features may still be lacking in their ability to increase awareness of sexual activity in prisons.


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 .

Hensley, Christopher and Richard Tewksbury (2005). "Wardens' Perceptions of Prison Sex." The Prison Journal, 85(2) pp. 186-197.


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