Guards May Be Responsible for Half of Prison Sexual Assaults

by Joaquin Sapien

A new
Justice Department study shows that allegations of sex abuse in the
nation’s prisons and jails are increasing — with correctional officers
responsible for half of it — but
prosecution is still extremely rare.
The report, released today by the Bureau of Justice
Statistics, takes data collected by correctional administrators representing
all of the nation’s federal and state prisons as well as many county jails. It
shows that administrators logged more than 8,000 reports
of abuse to their overseers each year between 2009 and 2011, up 11 percent from
the department’s previous
report, which covered 2007 and 2008.
It’s not clear whether the increase is the result of
better reporting or represents an actual rise in the number of incidents.
Allen Beck, the Justice Department statistician who
authored the reports, told ProPublica that abuse allegations might be
increasing because of growing awareness of the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination
“It’s a matter of speculation, but certainly there’s been
a considerable effort to inform staff about the dangers of sexual misconduct,
so we could be seeing the impact of that,” said Beck.
The survey also shows a growing proportion of the
allegations have been dismissed by prison officials as “unfounded” or “unsubstantiated.”
Only about 10 percent are substantiated by an investigation.
But even in the rare cases where there is enough evidence to
prove that sexual abuse occurred, and that a correctional officer is
responsible for it, the perpetrator rarely faces prosecution. While most prison
staff shown to be involved in sexual misconduct lost their jobs, fewer than
half were referred for prosecution, and only 1 percent ultimately got
Roughly one-third of staff caught abusing prisoners are
allowed to resign before the investigation comes to a close, the report concludes,
meaning there’s no public record of what exactly transpired and nothing
preventing them from getting a similar job at another facility.
“These findings
point to a level of impunity in our prisons and jails that is simply
unacceptable,” said Lovisa Stannow,
Executive Director of Just Detention International, a prisoner advocacy group
in California. “When corrections agencies don’t punish or choose to ignore
sexual abuse committed by staff members— people who are paid by our tax
dollars to keep inmates safe— they support criminal behavior.”
The lack of punishment may deter inmates from reporting.
When the Justice Department has surveyed inmates directly, as opposed to the
administrators that oversee them, the reports of abuse have been far greater. A
2013 survey
estimated that more than 80,000 prisoners had been sexually
victimized by fellow inmates or staff over a two-year period, roughly
five times the rate reported by administrators.
“Inmates don’t report because of the way the institution
handles these complaints: they’re afraid if they do report, then the staff will
retaliate,” said Kim Shayo Buchanan, a law professor
at the University of Southern California who studies the issue. “Even if you
report and they believe you, which they probably
won’t, the most likely thing to happen is that the person will be suspended or
maybe fired.”
Calls for comment to the Federal Bureau of Prisons and
the Association of State Correctional Administrators weren’t immediately

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