inside prison

Prison Rape: the challenge of prevention and enforcement


Perpetrators & Victim Profiles


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 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 being released.


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:

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.

prison rape investigationsThe 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:

Some facts on sexual violence among inmates reported to correctional authorities:

Correctional authorities substantiated nearly 2,100 incidents of sexual violence, 30% of completed investigations



Bureau of Justice Statistics. Sexual Violence Reported by Correctional Authorities, 2004.

Cindy Struckman-Johnson & David Struckman-Johnson, Sexual Coercion Rates in Seven Midwestern Prisons for Men, 80 The Prison Journal 379 (2000), available at .

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.



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