Works to Eliminate Sexual Assault in Prisons

By Lukima, Joyce | Corrections Today, June-July 2011 | Go to article overview

Works to Eliminate Sexual Assault in Prisons


Lukima, Joyce, Corrections Today


Sexual violence is a crime of secrecy and silence, and it often invokes denial. Rape, a form of sexual violence, is a devastating and often violent crime that, until recently, was viewed by many as an inevitable consequence of incarceration. Parallels can be seen when looking at sexual violence in the community and sexual violence in prisons. In an attempt to explain unexplainable behavior, society often seeks to blame the victim, regardless of status. Historically, victim blaming has been a common reaction to sexual violence. It is often played out through a series of questions: "Why were you there? Why did you go on a date with him? Why were you dressed that way? Why were you alone?" In a correctional setting, victim blaming is played out in the assumption that the inmate caused the sexual assault simply because he or she is incarcerated.

Reporting sexual violence also meets with similar resistance in and out of prison. Often, victims of sexual violence do not report it, or delay reporting for a number of reasons, including fear that they will not be believed, mistrust of law enforcement, disbelief or shock, shame or embarrassment, and fear of retaliation. For people who are victims of sexual violence while incarcerated, these obstacles to reporting sexual violence are compounded by living in a culture of mistrust. Who do you tell? Who can you trust? Will reports of sexual violence be believed if the offender is an inmate or a staff member? Who will guarantee safety? Even as human rights standards increasingly confirm that prisoners have the same fundamental rights to safety, dignity and justice as individuals living in the community, vulnerable men, women and children throughout the United States continue to be sexually victimized.

Prison Rape Elimination Act

On Sept. 4, 2004, the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 (PREA) was signed into law. The act provides for analysis of the incidence and effects of prison rape in federal, state and local institutions and for more information, resources, recommendations and funding to protect individuals from prison rape. Additionally, PREA called for the creation of a national commission to study the causes and consequences of sexual abuse in confinement and to develop standards for correctional facilities nationwide that would set in motion a process once considered impossible: the elimination of prison rape.

Sexual Assault Statistics

Following an extensive study of available resources and information on prison rape, the commission's report found that more than 60,000 individuals incarcerated in state or federal prisons were raped one or more times in a period of 12 months. Yet, the rates varied greatly across facilities suggesting that the problem of prison rape is not inevitable. The Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics has found one in 20 adult inmates in federal and state prisons and nearly one in eight juveniles in custody experiences sexual violence every year. The best available academic research has found that one in five male inmates suffers sexual abuse at some point during incarceration. In some women's facilities, one in four is victimized. In other words, thousands of men, women and children in detention suffer the devastation of rape, sometimes even at the hands of corrections officials whose job it is to keep prisoners safe.

Using what was learned about sexual assault in correctional settings, the commission developed mandatory standards to prevent, detect and punish sexual abuse. PREA applies to all federal, state and local institutions including public and private prisons, jails and community corrections. PREA required the development of national standards to identify, monitor and respond to sexual abuse behind bars and provided a venue for victims of sexual violence to be heard.

Pennsylvania's Response to Sexual Violence in Prisons

In response to PREACH passage, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PA DOC) took proactive measures to address the problem of prison rape and improve its system of response throughout the state's 27 correctional institutions. …

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