by David Kaiser and Lovisa Stannow.
The New York Review of Books
Back in 1998, Jan Lastocy was serving time for attempted embezzlement in a Michigan prison. Her job was working at a warehouse for a nearby men’s prison. She got along well with two of the corrections officers who supervised her, but she thought the third was creepy. “He was always talking about how much power he had,” she said, “how he liked being able to write someone a ticket just for looking at him funny.” Then, one day, he raped her.
Jan wanted to tell someone, but the warden had made it clear that she would always believe an officer’s word over an inmate’s, and didn’t like “troublemakers.” If Jan had gone to the officers she trusted, they would have had to repeat her story to the same warden. Jan was only a few months away from release to a halfway house. She was desperate to get out of prison, to return to her husband and children. So she kept quiet—and the officer raped her again, and again. There were plenty of secluded places in the huge warehouse, behind piles of crates or in the freezer. Three or four times a week he would assault her, from June all the way through December, and the whole time she was too terrified to report the attacks. Later, she would be tormented by guilt for not speaking out, because the same officer went on to rape other women at the prison. In a poem, Jan wrote:
These are a few of the reasons why prisoners fear reporting rape.
Fear of being written up and possibly losing good time.
Fear of retaliation.
Fear of feeling that no one will believe them.
Fear of feeling that no one really cares.
For all these reasons, a large majority of inmates who have been sexually abused by staff or by other inmates never report it.1 And corrections officials, with some brave exceptions, have historically taken advantage of this reluctance to downplay or even deny the problem. According to a recent report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), a branch of the Department of Justice, there were only 7,444 official allegations of sexual abuse in detention in 2008, and of those, only 931 were substantiated. These are absurdly low figures. But perhaps more shocking is that even when authorities confirmed that corrections staff had sexually abused inmates in their care, only 42 percent of those officers had their cases referred to prosecution; only 23 percent were arrested, and only 3 percent charged, indicted, or convicted. Fifteen percent were actually allowed to keep their jobs.
How many people are really victimized every year? Recent BJS studies using a “snapshot” technique have found that, of those incarcerated on the days the surveys were administered, about 90,000 had been abused in the previous year, but as we have argued previously,2 those numbers were also misleadingly low. Finally, in January, the Justice Department published its first plausible estimates. In 2008, it now says, more than 216,600 people were sexually abused in prisons and jails and, in the case of at least 17,100 of them, in juvenile detention. Overall, that’s almost six hundred people a day—twenty-five an hour.
The department divides sexual abuse in detention into four categories. Most straightforward, and most common, is rape by force or the threat of force. An estimated 69,800 inmates suffered this in 2008.3 The second category, “nonconsensual sexual acts involving pressure,” includes 36,100 inmates coerced by such means as blackmail, offers of protection, and demanded payment of a jailhouse “debt.” This is still rape by any reasonable standard.
An estimated 65,700 inmates, including 6,800 juveniles, had sex with staff “willingly.” But it is illegal in all fifty states for corrections staff to have any sexual contact with inmates. Since staff can inflict punishments including behavioral reports that may extend the time people serve, solitary confinement, loss of even the most basic privileges such as showering, and (legally or not) violence, it is often impossible for inmates to say no.4 Finally, the department estimates that there were 45,000 victims of “abusive sexual contacts” in 2008: unwanted touching by another inmate “of the inmate’s buttocks, thigh, penis, breasts, or vagina in a sexual way.” Overall, most victims were abused not by other inmates but, like Jan, by corrections staff: agents of our government, paid with our taxes, whose job it is to keep inmates safe.
All the numbers we have cited count people who were abused, not instances of abuse. People raped behind bars cannot escape their attackers, though. They must live in constant fear, their trauma renewed every time they see their assailants. Between half and two thirds of those who claim sexual abuse in adult facilities say it happened more than once; previous BJS studies suggest that victims endure an average of three to five attacks each per year.5
We believe that the department’s estimate probably remains too low. It is based on extensive surveys conducted by the BJS in which inmates were able to report abuse anonymously. Some inmates probably fabricated such reports, creating “false positives,” and some who had been abused probably decided not to report it, creating “false negatives.” Since it is impossible to know how many errors of either kind there were, the department chose simply to take the BJS results at face value.
In our opinion, the surveys were effectively designed to discourage false reporting, which would usually be done with the intent of creating trouble for the accused perpetrator or in hopes of being moved to a different facility. The surveys therefore simply didn’t take names—of victims or perpetrators. (The surveys’ authors also devised a number of ways to check for and discount false claims.) On the other hand, inmates would be likely not to report real abuse from shame, or because it was too painful, or out of fear that those guaranteeing their anonymity could not be trusted—and no survey could be designed to overcome those considerations effectively. Moreover, the department’s estimate does not include the many people who are sexually abused in, for example, the Department of Homeland Security’s immigration detention facilities, in police lockups, or by their probation and parole officers.
Even the department’s estimate is of epidemic numbers, however. It shows that there is a human rights crisis in our own country. The people raped in our prisons are our fellow citizens, family members, and neighbors. And when they’re released, as 95 percent of them will be eventually, they bring their trauma home with them, back to our communities.
The notion that rape is inevitable in our prisons is, as the Justice Department says, “not only incorrect but incompatible with American values.” After all, the government has extraordinary control over the lives of people whom it locks up and keeps under surveillance every hour of every day. Preventing sexual abuse in detention is primarily a matter of management. The policies needed are, for the most part, straightforward: for example, considering characteristics that make an inmate especially vulnerable when deciding where to house him, such as homosexuality or a history of prior abuse. Well-run prisons have adopted such policies already, and their rates of sexual assault are dramatically lower than the national average. But for too long, too many facilities have failed to take these basic measures.
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