Inmate Sexual Victimization Persists, While Feds Stall On New Rules

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the rate of inmate sexual victimization rose dramatically between Justice Department surveys for 2007 and 2009. That version compared 2009 figures for prisons and jails with 2007 figures for prisons alone; there was in fact a separate 2007 report on jails.

Inmates continue to experience sexual victimization in shocking numbers inside America's prisons and jails, even as Attorney General Eric Holder defies a congressional deadline to develop and enact national standards to address the problem.

A new study released Thursday by the Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that 88,500 adults held in U.S. prisons and jails are sexually abused annually, either by staff or fellow inmates.

That estimate is based on a 2009 nationwide survey of inmates in federal and state prisons and in county jails. It's up a bit from the previous estimate of 85,200, based on separate 2007 surveys of prisons and

The new study found that that an estimated 4.4% of prison inmates and 3.1% of jail inmates reported experiencing one or more incidents of sexual victimization.

Overall, the survey paints a grim picture of a system of mass incarceration where all too many prisoners, stripped of their autonomy or ability to defend themselves, spend their sentences terrorized by sexual predators.

Defying some of the pop-cultural stereotypes, however, it turns out most of that predation is carried out by guards, rather than inmates: 2.8 percent of prison inmates reported sexual misconduct by prison staff, compared to 2.1 percent who reported being abused by fellow inmates. The staff statistics include ostensibly willing sexual activity, as all sexual contacts between inmates and staff are legally non-consensual.

Staff sexual misconduct was more common in men's than in women's facilities.

And female inmates were more than twice as likely as male inmates to report experiencing inmate-on-inmate sexual victimization.

Yet some of the stereotypes appear to be justified. Among those reporting inmate-on-inmate sexual victimization, 13% of male prison inmates and 19% of male jail inmates said it began within the first 24 hours after admission.

And prison inmates who identify as non-heterosexual were more than eight times as likely to report being sexually victimized by other inmates, and almost three times as likely to report being sexually victimized by staff.

The survey did not include incarcerated minors, but in a similar BJS report released in January, more than 12 percent of youth in juvenile detention -- or one in eight -- reported sexual abuse; again, mostly by facility staff.

Earlier this month, an unusual coalition of groups from the left and right appealed to the Justice Department to take action immediately.

A law passed in 2003 created an independent commission to develop national standards to address the problem. The commission issued its exhaustive report and recommendations in June 2009. And the attorney general was required by law to enact new standards by June 23, 2010.

That was three months ago.

"Sexual abuse in detention is a stain on our society," said Lovisa Stannow, Executive Director of Just Detention International, in a statement. "Every day that the Attorney General doesn't finalize the national standards is another day of anguish among prisoner rape survivors, of preventable safety breaches in prisons and jails, and of significant spending of taxpayers' money on medical treatment, investigations, and litigation that could have been avoided."

Justice Department officials say they are working hard to draft standards that are workable. In Hill testimony in March, Holder raised practical concerns with the commission's recommendations and described pushback from corrections officials.

The new report provides a list of facilities ranked according to the prevalence of sexual victimization. The enormous variation between facilities supports the belief by advocates that new, tough national standards are essential, and can make a difference.

"Not surprisingly, some agencies fared consistently worse than others," said Stannow. "Today's data show clearly that departments of corrections lacking committed leadership, strong policies, and sound practices run prisons and jails where sexual abuse flourishes."

According to Just Detention International's analysis:

The Fluvanna Correctional Center, a women's prison in Virginia, was the only facility to rank among those with the highest rates of both inmate-on-inmate abuse and staff sexual misconduct. Three of the five male prisons with the highest rates of inmate-on-inmate abuse were run by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, while the four jails with the worst rates were in Orleans Parish (LA), Madison County (AL), Miami-Dade (FL), and Houston County (AL). Facilities run by the New York State Department of Correctional Services had the highest rates of staff sexual abuse for both men's and women's prisons. The list of jails with high rates of staff sexual misconduct was topped by Caroline County Jail in Maryland, Eastern Shore Regional Jail in Virginia, and Clallam County Correctional Facility in Washington.