News Analysis: Report on Forced Sex in Prison
The U.S. Department of Justice has released its report, "Sexual Victimization in Prisons, and Jails Reported by Inmates, 2011-12: National Inmate Survey, 2011-12." As this survey collected data for the sexual orientation of the victim, differences in risk between lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) inmates and heterosexual inmates became visible: LGB inmates are much more likely to be victims than are straight inmates. Sexual victimization or forced sex ranges from nonconsensual touching to gang rape. Fortunately most inmates both straight and LGB reported no sexual victimization. Unfortunately, the survey did not collect data for the victimization of transgender individuals.
This report distinguished forced sex by inmates from forced sex by staff. The U.S. legal system defines all sexual contact between staff and inmates as victimizing. The report defined only nonconsensual sexual behavior among inmates as forced.
Males and females reported differences in forced sex by other inmates. Gay/bi male inmates were about 12 times more likely to report forced sex by other inmates than were straight male inmates. Lesbian/bi women were 2.6 times more likely to report forced sex by another inmate than were straight women.
While both gay/bi men and lesbian/bi women reported higher rates of forced sex by staff than did straight inmates, the differences between LGB males and females were much less sharp. Gay/bi male inmates were 3 times more likely to be sexually forced by staff than were straight male inmates, and lesbian/bi women were 2.1 times more likely than straight female inmates to be forced by staff. Only straight males reported greater forced sex by staff than by other inmates.
Age had minimal affects on LGB sexual victimization. LGB inmates between the ages of 18 and 24 were 1.3 times more likely to report forced sex by other inmates than were LGB inmates 45 and older. Those LGB inmates 45 and older, however, were 6.8 times more likely to report forced sex by other inmates than were straight inmates between 18 and 24. Victimization rates by staff differed less, but showed a similar pattern of greater differences by sexual orientation than by age range.
While this report has many excellent features, it does have some serious limitations. First, this report failed to collect any transgender data, despite obvious high vulnerability. As a result an unknown portion of the LGB victims actually are transgender victims. Second, data in this report probably undercounts forced sex; people notoriously under-report rape. Third, surveys rely on self-reporting. While self-reporting provides an excellent source of subjective perception of "reality" problem solving craves "objective" facts. Objective measures could have strengthened this report. For example, according to this survey, 3,743 LGB inmates responded that they were injured during forced sex by another inmate. Records of these injuries should exist and could corroborate the findings in this report.
Despite its limitations, this work helps to frame sexual victimization as a problem that should be resolved, especially in the U.S. with 5 percent of the world's population but almost 25 percent of the world's prison population.
To access the full report visit www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/svpjri1112.pdf
How Prisons Protect Some Inmates
In 2003, Congress, with strong bi-partisan support, passed the first federal law to protect prisoners from sexual assault, The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). This Act also required the regular surveying of inmates to monitor sexual victimization of inmates, such as the National Inmate Survey.
This reporter spoke about forced sex in prisons and jails with someone who works within the U.S. prison/jail industry. According to Jordan (not the worker's real name), prisons and jails use a segregation system whereby prisoners are assigned to different units at the discretion of staff. Staff can use this assignment process to protect prisoners with provisions of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA).
PREA requires entry interviews at booking or transfer between facilities. Jordan reported that in these interviews, an inmate can self-disclose if they have fears of forced sex. These interviews provide an opportunity to disclose sexual orientation. Some facilities have a separate unit for transgender prisoners. Gay/bi men can request to be assigned to that unit, or some other unit, if they disclose safety concerns in the entry interview process. Lesbian and bi women tend to be housed among the general female population.
While all policies can be improved, the enactment of a law to protect prisoners from the "cruel and unusual punishment" of sexual assault in prison marks a major step forward, as does the creation of special protective units within prisons. The processes set in motion by this law helps to protect people who can't run away from their attackers.