Prison Rape: Fearsome, Largely Unaddressed Problem


The prevalence of rape in prison is fearsome, reports Legal Affairs magazine. Line officers recently surveyed in one southern state estimated that one in five male prisoners were being coerced into sex; among higher-ranking officials, the estimate was one in eight. Prisoners themselves estimated one in three. The most authoritative studies, conducted by the University of South Dakota professor Cindy Struckman-Johnson, found that more than 20 percent of prisoners are the victims of some form of coerced sexual contact, and at least 7 percent are raped. That suggests that some 140,000 current inmates have been raped. The corrections industry itself estimates that there are 12,000 rapes per year, which exceeds the annual number of reported rapes in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York combined.

Despite its prevalence, prison rape has generally been treated by courts and corrections officials as a problem without a solution. Prison rape is rarely prosecuted; like most crimes committed in prison, rapes aren’t taken on by local district attorneys but left to corrections officials. When inmates seek civil damages against the prison system, they must prove not merely that prison officials should have done more to prevent abuse but that they showed “deliberate indifference”–that is, that they had actual knowledge that an inmate was at risk and disregarded it.

Last year, Congress passed the Prison Rape Reduction Act, which allocates $60 million to support prison rape-prevention programs and to aid investigations and punishment of perpetrators. The bill, which enjoyed bipartisan support, requires states to collect statistics on prison rape. Backers of the legislation hope federal oversight will make sexual assault prevention a priority for jail and prison systems across the nation.

The federal money will certainly make some difference. A higher hurdle, however, is the task of changing the way Americans think about prison rape. While San Francisco was honing its rape-prevention protocols, the state’s attorney general, Bill Lockyer, joked that he “would love to personally escort” Enron CEO Ken Lay “to an 8-by-10 cell that he could share with a tattooed dude who says, ‘Hi, my name is Spike, honey.’ ”


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