How Common is Sexual Assault in Correctional Facilities?

Posted on July 5, 2012 by


Image: Bureau of Justice Statistics, public domain.

A 2005 article that appeared in The Criminologist was titled, “It ain’t happening here: Working to understand prison rape.” Although I had spent some time working in correctional facilities at that point, I still labored under the popular myth that sexual assaults in prison were absolutely ubiquitous.

Kreinert and Fleisher’s article taught me otherwise, and suggested that the narrative about prison rape is far more complicated than it might appear.

They wrote:

Hollywood and newspaper editorials as well as former inmates’ allegations of sexual assault, sexual coercion, rape and sexual slavery have slowly imprinted on America’s psyche the illusion that prison rape is a nearly inescapable consequence of imprisonment.

Prison rape research is flawed, they argue, and I don’t disagree. I also know that any kind of research on incarcerated populations or former inmates is extremely difficult to do. Prison officials don’t want to give access for fear of bad publicity or even lawsuits, while inmates, by turns, are scared to report, lie about being assaulted, lie about not being assaulted, and generally mistrust everyone.

Ultimately, Kreinert and Fleisher’s research finds that sexual assaults in prison are not nearly so common as you would think. A recent publication from the Bureau of Justice Statistics further supports their contention. (We should point out that the publication is recent (2012) but it is based on older data from 2008.)

Findings from the report include:

  • „„An estimated 9.6% of former state prisoners reported one or more incidents of sexual victimization during the most recent period of incarceration in jail, prison, and postrelease community-treatment facility. „
  • Among all former state prisoners, 1.8% reported experiencing one or more incidents while in a local jail, 7.5% while in a state prison, and 0.1% while in a postrelease community-treatment facility. „„
  • About 5.4% of former state prisoners reported an incident that involved another inmate.
  • An estimated 3.7% of former prisoners said they were forced or pressured to have nonconsensual sex with another inmate, including manual stimulation and oral, anal, or vaginal penetration. „„
  • About 5.3% of former state prisoners reported an incident that involved facility staff. An estimated 1.2% of former prisoners reported that they unwillingly had sex or sexual contact with facility staff, and 4.6% reported that they “willingly” had sex or sexual contact with staff. „„
  • Although the rate of sexual victimization in state prison reported by former inmates (7.5%) was higher than the rate reported by inmates in previous BJS surveys (4.8% in 2008-09), the difference may reflect longer exposure periods (39.4 months and 7.9 months, respectively).

How common is prison sexual assault? It happens, and it’s serious. But it’s not the ubiquitous and inevitable experience that we so often believe it to be.


Related articles: