Sexual Victimization of Inmates in the U.S.

face of a prisoner

Persons experiencing sexual victimization as inmates in the U.S. is about 200,000 per year according to the best available estimates. The pioneering U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Inmate Survey (NIS), 2008-09, estimated about 90,000 adult inmates were sexually victimized in its reporting windows.^ Because inmate population dynamics are complex, NIS statistics require careful, detailed interpretation.

Informative statistics on the prevalence of inmate sexual victimization can with good reason differ significantly from the directly reported results of NIS. In its regulatory impact assessment for the Prison Rape Elimination Act, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) estimated about 200,000 adults are sexually victimized per year as inmates.^ Neither NIS and DOJ reported these inmate sexual victimization statistics by sex. Alternate, fully documented estimates are that about 230,000 adults are sexually victimized per year as inmates, consisting of about 190,000 men and 40,000 women.

The number of incidents of sexual victimization of inmates is much higher than the number of inmates victimized. In NIS, about two-thirds of inmates who reported sexual victimization reported more than one incident of sexual victimization. Roughly 15% of inmates who reported sexual victimization reported 11 or more incidents of victimization. The average number of incidents of victimization per inmate victim was about 5. Across a year, inmates suffer an estimated 1.2 million incidents of sexual victimization.

Sexual victimization of inmates is skewed toward men more for staff-on-inmate victimization than for inmate-on-inmate victimization. Incarceration has a highly disparate impact on men. Nonetheless, neither NIS and DOJ reported top-line summary inmate sexual victimization statistics by sex. The alternate estimates recognize the importance of sex. Inmate-on-inmate victimization and staff-on-inmate victimization was suffered by, respectively, 2.4 and 7.9 men per woman. The sex ratio of jail commitments is about 3.5 men per woman. These data indicate that men inmates face a lower risk of sexual victimization from other men inmates than women inmates do from other women inmates. The relatively high ratio of men to women victims of staff-on-inmate sexual victimization is consistent with sex-discriminatory restrictions on cross-sex inmate supervision and greater representation of men among prisoners than among correctional officers.

Like most surveys of sexual victimization, NIS uses anonymous self-reporting of (claimed) sexual victimization. Under-reporting and false reporting of sexual victimization, including rape, are significant. Sexual victimization includes both nonconsensual sexual acts and nonconsensual sexual contact, such as touching sexual areas in a sexual way, that are not included in nonconsensual sexual acts. All staff sexual contact with inmates is illegal and is counted as sexual victimization of inmates. Survey administrators’ judging of sexual victimization greatly affects results of sexual victimization surveys. In the actual functioning of the criminal justice system, personally felt victimization differs greatly from criminalization. Hence surveys of sexual victimization do not directly indicate crimes committed.

NIS’s time horizon for sexual victimization reporting differs for prison inmates and jail inmates. Prison inmates held for more than a year in the prison in which they currently resided were asked about sexual abuse over the past year. Prison inmates held for less than a year were asked about sexual abuse since they entered that prison. Jail inmates held for more than six months in the jail in which they currently resided were asked about sexual abuse over the past six months. Jail inmates held there for less than six months were asked about sexual abuse since they entered that jail. Hence directly reported NIS figures for sexual victimization under-estimate the number of persons per year experiencing sexual victimization.

Inmates who spend less than a few days incarcerated have a significant risk of sexual victimization. The typical length of an inmate stay in jail is two days.^ ^ The number of persons who spend at least overnight in jail across a year is much higher than the number of persons in jail on any given day. Among male jail inmates reporting inmate-on-inmate sexual victimization, 19% reported being victimized within the first 24 hours of jail commitment and 38% reported being victimized within three days after jail commitment.^ Staff-on-inmate sexual victimization in jails is even more skewed toward jail entry: 30% of victimizations within 24 hours and 45% within the first three days after commitment.^

NIS and DOJ estimates of inmate sexual victimization miss considerable victimization in police lockups. Police lockups hold inmates for no longer than a few days. NIS did not cover police lockups. Roughly eight million detentions for overnight or longer occur in U.S. police lockups per year. Given sexual victimization highly skewed toward entry, the number of persons per year sexually victimized in U.S. jails and lockups is much larger than NIS reported sexual victimizations of jail inmates.

Adding persons victimized in state prisons to those victimized in jails and lockups requires considering double-counting. Most persons in prison were transferred there from jail. Suppose, within the accounting year, a person sexually victimized in jail was then sent to prison, where he was sexually victimized again. That should count as one person sexually victimized in the year, not two. Persons who move from jails to prisons typically spent weeks to months in jail. Because the median length of jail stays is two days, most commitments to jails and lockups do not involve a transfer within the year to prison. Double counting in adding jail and prison inmate victims likely amounts to less than 1000 inmates. That’s within the margin of error of the victimization estimates.

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