Rape is an abominable crime everywhere, except behind bars. In state and federal prisons, sexual assault occurs at appalling rates, and the perpetrators often go unpunished—another symbol of the culture of impunity that looms over the incarcerated. On Tuesday, a coalition of civil liberties groups called on the Justice Department to finally enact structural reforms to hold attackers, and the institutions that create an abusive environment, accountable.
About one in every 20 people in prison were sexually assaulted last year, according to federal statistics. For juvenile inmates, the annual rate is about one in eight. The threat of sexual violence and coercion stems from both fellow inmates as well as staff, and women and girls especially are at risk of being exploited by the officers controlling their facilities.
The problem, says the ACLU and other groups, is compounded by restrictions on litigation that limit the legal remedies available to incarcerated people, which means that assault survivors must first go through a labyrinth of internal grievance procedures before they can seek justice in the courts.
Despite the passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, prisons around the country have yet to adopt uniform standards for addressing sexual abuse and assault.
In a letter issued to Attorney General Eric Holder, the coalition wrote, “For each day that the standards are delayed, more men and women—and, yes, boys and girls-will be raped.” The groups urged Holder to implement (way past a congressional deadline) the standards recommended by the National Prison Rape Commission, which focus on prevention, detection, legal response and monitoring of sexual assault, and to set guidelines for responding to complaints among high-risk populations.
A demographic overview of the groups most at risk says a lot about why the problem has gone unaddressed for so long. The racial and gender hierarchy in the prison system mirrors that of society at large, but in an institution that harbors society’s most marginalized, the consequences are far more brutal.
According to the Commission’s report, youth, especially girls, are extremely vulnerable:
Juveniles are ill-equipped to respond to sexual advances by older, more experienced youth or adult caretakers. Based on reports of rampant physical violence and sexual abuse in a juvenile correctional facility in Plainfield, Indiana, the U.S. Department of Justice began investigating conditions of confinement in 2004. Investigators were shocked by the age and size disparity between many of the youth involved. Youth as old as 18 were assaulting or coercing children as young as 12; children weighing as little as 70 pounds were sexually abused by youth outweighing them by 100 pounds.
Simply being female is a risk factor. Girls are disproportionately represented among sexual abuse victims. According to data collected by BJS in 2005-2006, 36 percent of all victims in substantiated incidents of sexual violence were female, even though girls represented only 15 percent of confined youth in 2006. And they are much more at risk of abuse by staff than by their peers. Pervasive misconduct at a residential facility for girls in Chalkville, Alabama, beginning in 1994 and continuing through 2001, led 49 girls to bring charges that male staff had fondled, raped, and sexually harassed them. Abusive behavior is not limited to male staff. In 2005, the Department of Justice found that numerous female staff in an Oklahoma juvenile facility for boys had sexual relations with the youth under their care.
Immigrants are also especially at risk, not least because they lack many of the legal protections afforded to citizens:
Many factors—personal and circumstantial, alone or in combination—make immigration detainees especially vulnerable to sexual abuse. One of the most pervasive factors is social isolation. Individuals are often confined far from family or friends and may not speak the language of other detainees or staff. Those who have already suffered terrifying experiences in their home countries or in the United States can be almost defenseless by the time they are detained and may even expect to be abused.
People who defy gender norms are easy targets for both staff and fellow inmates:
Unless facility managers and administrators take decisive steps to protect these individuals, they may be forced to live in close proximity or even in the same cell with potential assailants. When Alexis Giraldo was sentenced to serve time in the California correctional system, her male-to-female transgender identity and appearance as a woman triggered a recommendation to place her in a facility with higher concentrations of transgender prisoners, where she might be safer. Yet officials ignored the recommendation and sent her to Folsom Prison in 2006, where she was raped and beaten by two different cellmates.
The most horrific aspect of the issue is that many of these survivors will be released one day, and then be forced to reintegrate into society with few, if any, resources for healing their sexual trauma. Prison rape doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but it’s not inevitable, either. It’s just another accepted reality in a system that dehumanizes people by design.