Skip Navigation

Sexual Abuse In Prison: No Laughing Matter

For many of us the only reference we have to prison rape is through crude jokes from late-night comics.

Yet sexual assault is a serious, pervasive problem in America's prisons, jails, and juvenile detention facilities. Following thorough study and deliberation, policymakers have formulated concrete standards to address this problem. Now it’s up to Attorney General Eric Holder to apply them.

 In 2003 President George W. Bush signed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). The Act, which was supported by a broad bipartisan coalition and unanimously approved by both houses of Congress, mandates the collection of comprehensive data on sexual assault and the adoption of national standards for correctional facilities.

 The most recent statistics collected pursuant to PREA indicate that over 80,000 detainees were victims of sexual assault in the last year. Amongst adult inmates, 1 in 20 was a victim; for juveniles the number was a staggering 1 in 8.

After extensive investigation, including “chilling” testimony from jail and prison rape survivors, the Prison Rape Elimination Commission released its report in June 2009. The report contains model standards for correctional facilities to eradicate this problem. The law gave the Attorney General one year to study the report before adopting the standards. That deadline passed in June. Despite the urging of the ACLU and a broad coalition of groups, the Obama Administration is still inexplicably dragging its feet on adopting the standards.

Sexual assault of detainees is not just a threat to the health and dignity of its victims. Detainee rape is also a threat to institutional order and security, and a danger to public safety and public health. Almost all of these victims, after all, will eventually return to our communities and often perpetuate the cycle of violence first visited upon them behind bars.

As the PREC report notes, “Sexual abuse is not an inevitable feature of incarceration.” Years of work has been devoted to formulating tools to combat sexual violence against detainees. Now the Obama Administration just needs to use them.

Photo credit: Just Detention International

Prison and Jail Volunteers as Watchdogs for Sexual Assaults

I am greatly saddened by these findings as no one should have to endure such horrible abuse. Incarcerated individuals, regardless of the allegations against them, are a vulnerable population. Dan Froomkin, the deputy editor of the Nieman Watchdog Project, recently spoke to Chuck Colson, vice president of the Prison Fellowship Ministries, about another avenue for reporting such incidents in perhaps a more timely and accurate manner. Mr. Colson referred to volunteers' access to and gained knowledge of prison and jail officials' attitudes toward, interactions with and possible abuse of the inmate population.

Not only do volunteers form part of a multipronged approach in efforts to reduce recidivsm in this country, they also can serve as watchdogs for inmates' rights while serving their sentences. The insightful article can be found on the following link,

Lastly,as a former volunteer in the King County Jail, I interacted with both incarcerated individuals and jail staff. The environment was stressful for everyone; however, just as in life outside of those walls, one's perspective forms one's daily attitude and subsequent actions and reactions. Possible human rights' violations in jails are especially difficult to monitor, resolve and document due to shorter periods of sentencing and transfers. Prisons also present their own set of barriers for reporting and observing sexual assaults.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong><b<<i>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.