In acknowledging the ultimate destination for criminal individuals and those who commit violent offenses, we are also aware of the severe overcrowding issue in our prisons. This issue has resulted in a court order from the Supreme Court of California to reduce the inmate population due to its negative impact on rehabilitation opportunities and an excessively high guard-to-inmate ratio. However, our understanding of prison and jail dynamics remains limited.
Despite our recognition of activities such as prison gangs, drug use, assaults, robberies, and even murders within these facilities, it is crucial to consider the consequences when housing violent, drug-dependent, angry, abusive or gang-affiliated individuals alongside first-time offenders in overcrowded environments. Such a combination often leads to inmate rape – a form of aggressive sexual assault that occurs commonly.
To effectively combat rape in our communities, it is crucial to address the issue within prisons, jails, and reform schools. These institutions currently house 1.3 million men and boys, serving as breeding grounds for rapists. Rape has become an accepted practice in most of these places, seen as a way for prisoners to assert their masculinity and fulfill their sexual and power-driven desires. The exact number of sexually assaulted prisoners is uncertain, but surveys conducted over two decades suggest that more than 290,000 males are victims of sexual assault annually behind bars (a conservative estimate). In comparison with women nationwide, where there are 135,000 reported cases of rape each year according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics; however, various organizations believe the actual figure is higher.
Inmate rape, rather than being driven by sexual desires, is a form of aggression expressed through sexual acts. Once targeted, prisoners become continuous victims of sexual assault. They endure gang rapes or engage in submissive behavior with multiple individuals to seek protection. Unfortunately, the majority of these assaults go unreported and rarely have legal consequences. “Prisoners who lack street smarts, are not affiliated with a gang, do not belong to the dominant racial or ethnic group within their institution, or are held in smaller city jails are at a particularly high risk of becoming victims.” The victims primarily consist of heterosexual individuals forced into submissive sexual roles. However, even known homosexuals face an even greater risk of rape. The perpetrators typically identify as heterosexual and have a preference for the opposite sex; thus categorizing it as “homosexual rape” is highly misleading. Male inmates who experience rape undergo significant psychological trauma as their sexuality and aggression – which are two key aspects of their identity – are devalued.
Male victims of sexual abuse experience a unique impact on their gender identity and image as another man violates their body. While there is limited research available, it is believed that incidents of sexual assault are much less common among female prisoners compared to males. Conversely, women face a higher vulnerability to sexual abuse by prison guards. The traumatic consequences of sexual violence often extend beyond a single occurrence, becoming an ongoing ordeal for survivors in their daily lives. Experts in psychology and rape counseling suggest that victims who do not receive psychological treatment may suppress anger which could manifest as violent outbursts when reintegrating into society. In some cases, individuals may even become perpetrators themselves in an attempt to reclaim their sense of masculinity through the same forceful means they feel was taken from them.
The original purpose of correctional institutions like prisons, jails, and detention centers is undermined by the transformation of nonviolent detainees and minor offenders into more dangerous individuals. This harmful cycle is evident through incidents such as attempted sexual attacks, which are frequently experienced by new inmates and can lead to severe trauma and serious injuries. Despite prison officials privately acknowledging this pattern of abuse, prisoner victims are not included in national rape statistics and little action has been taken to prevent these assaults. The social stigma surrounding male rape is a significant deterrent for victims who are discouraged from reporting their experiences or seeking help.
Despite some professionals in the prison system choosing to ignore the issue, there are others who recognize it as a matter of life or death during the AIDS era. Fortunately, there is an increasing awareness from the public and media regarding sexual abuse in prisons, prompting them to challenge long-standing taboos. Additionally, courts now require wardens and sheriffs to protect prisoners. A notable example is when the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit upheld an injunction in July 1993 that mandated Glades Correctional Institution in Belle Glade, Fla., to implement a staff training program on prisoner rape – making it the first program of its kind in the country. Another significant development is seen through Farmer v. Brennan, a landmark case unanimously ruled by the U.S. Supreme Court that establishes a precedent at the highest level of law. People Organized to Stop the Rape of Imprisoned Persons (an Ft.) can celebrate this important milestone.
Founded in 1979, the Bragg based advocacy group believes that legal action can lead to changes in reducing prisoner rape and improving conditions for victims still in prison. The state of the law regarding institutions’ legal responsibilities to prevent sexual assault of prisoners is changing. There has been an increase in civil litigation concerning institutional liability, resulting in higher state taxes. Since 1979, prisoners who have been victimized have received significant monetary damages (e.g., $380,000 in one case) from institutions that were sued for violating their federal civil rights under the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment. These lawsuits are based on claims of “failure to protect” and “deliberate indifference” by institution officials. The U.S. Supreme Court established this standard for sexual assaults in the Smith v.
The concept of addressing prisoner rape was initially introduced by Wade (1983) and further expanded upon by Farmer. Another approach to tackling prisoner rape emerged when the Prisoner Rape Education Project, a manual and two audiotapes offering practical advice for prisoners and staff on how to avoid and survive prisoner rape, was published by the Safer Society Press of the New York State Council of Churches. The manual emphasizes the importance of making condoms available to victims of rape who have formed alliances with stronger prisoners to protect themselves. Currently, condoms are accessible in New York City jails but considered contraband in the New York State system. The manual argues that providing condoms to these victims can prevent them from having survival-driven sex, which can result in degrading experiences or even death sentences. It is contended that reducing the prison population, improving prison conditions, training prison staff on human sexuality, and offering furloughs and treatment services for inmates are necessary steps to diminish prison rapes.
Rape is a crime that is committed regularly against prisoners, some of whom may only be incarcerated due to their inability to pay bail. The attacks will only stop when the public focuses their attention on the expensive walls that have been constructed and are upheld by taxpayers to ensure public safety. They will cease when all staff members receive improved training to prevent and respond empathetically to rape victims. Additionally, new prisoners must be educated on practical strategies for avoiding such acts. Finally, prisoners themselves, with the backing of administrators, must unite and take accountability in putting an end to this horrifying situation.
- Gillian C. Mezey and Michael B. King, eds., Male Victims of Sexual Assault, 1995, New York: Oxford Univ. Press (Chapter 4, “Male rape in institutional settings”).
- Anthony M. Scacco, Jr., ed., Male Rape: A Casebook of Sexual Aggressions, 1992, NY:AMS.
- Ben-David, S. (1993) Rape death and resurrection: Male reactions after disclosure of the secret of being a rape victim. Medicine and Law, 12, 181-189.
- Nacci, P. (1994) Inmate sexual aggression. Journal of Offender Counseling, Services & Rehabilitation, 9, 1-20.
- Cotton, D. (1982) Inmate rape: Prevention and intervention. Journal of Prison and Jail Health, 2(1), 47-57.
- Starchild, A. (1990) Rape of youth in prison and juvenile facilities. Journal of Psychohistory, 18(2), 145-150.
- People Organized to Stop the Rape of Imprisoned Persons (1998) Periodic newsletter, P.O. Box 632 Ft. Bragg, CA 95437.
- Barden R. (1991). Prisons. FL, pgs. 24-29, 51-57.
- Rothenberg, D. (1993) Sexual behavior in an abnormal setting. Corrective & Social Psychiatry, Methods & Therapy, 29(3), 78-81.