Prison Rape: Worse Than You Thought

A sobering series from The New York Review of Books

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This month, The New York Review of Books ran a two-part series of articles on rape and sexual abuse in American detention facilities. This problem, according to authors David Kaiser and Lovisa Stannow, is both systemic and widely under-reported. Drawing on an impressive breadth of studies, Kaiser and Stannow conclude that the vast majority of sexual violence is committed not by fellow inmates but by prison staff, and that a deeply entrenched culture of silence smothers victimized prisoners. They also offer a number of recommendations for increasing transparency and making it more difficult for such abuses to take place.

Kaiser and Stannow don't shy away from graphic descriptions of brutality, and at times their work can be hard to read. But the report is compelling for the depth of its research, for the unexpected nature of many of its findings--including the surprising statistic that 95 percent of juvenile prisoners reporting abuse said they'd been victimized by female employees--and for the authors' clear-eyed treatment of such an emotionally charged subject.

  • The Numbers In a January 7 blog post that serves as a sort of warning shot for the articles proper--several paragraphs also appear in the March 11 magazine piece--Kaiser and Stannow focus on the sexual abuse of minors, and make the scope of the problem clear. Some 3,220 juveniles, or 12.1 percent of those in custody, reported being sexually abused in prison in the past year, but in all likelihood this number "represents only a small fraction" of the abuses taking place. "What sort of kids get locked up in the first place?" the authors ask. "Only 34 percent of those in juvenile detention are there for violent crimes." Meanwhile, a number of minors are simply trapped in a system that doesn't care about them.
More than 20 percent of those in juvenile detention were confined for technical offenses such as violating probation, or for "status offenses" like disobeying parental orders, missing curfews, truancy, or running away--often from violence and abuse at home. Many suffer from mental illness, substance abuse, and learning disabilities.
  • The Problem Kaiser and Stannow base their March 11 article on a number of troubling findings about juvenile sexual abuse. "In prison culture... after an inmate is raped for the first time he is considered 'turned out,' and fair game for further abuse," the authors note. Victims often "have mental disabilities or mental illness, they are disproportionately likely to be first-time and nonviolent offenders, and most simply, they are likely to be small." Prisoner rape circulates sexually transmitted diseases, which then get redistributed to society at large when prisoners are released. Inmates who want to report abuse often have nowhere to turn; prison staff tend to protect each other, and fear of reprisals is widespread. And under these circumstances, it's not unheard of for young men and women to commit suicide.
  • The Solution Though the issue of prisoner rape might seem insolubly complex, the authors argue that "if only we had the political will, we could almost completely eliminate it." Their March 25 follow-up offers several recommendations. Administrators should take steps to identify at-risk prisoners and avoid housing them with violent inmates, the authors say; also, oversight committees must take seriously prisoners' claims of abuse, and aggressively monitor facilities where such reports have been made. Kaiser and Stannow add that Attorney General Eric Holder will soon have the opportunity to sign off on a number of sweeping reform measures, but many corrections officials are protesting the expense and added scrutiny. For Kaiser and Stannow, though, there's only one acceptable course of action:
If Holder needlessly delays in approving these standards, or ones very much like them--worse, if he strips them of their force because of pressure from corrections leaders--then tens or hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children will continue to be raped while in the government's care, when we could have prevented it.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.