Appendix 1: Overview of sexual assault in corrections

Appendix 1: Overview of sexual assault in corrections

Incidence and prevalence

A growing body of research documents the incidence and prevalence of sexual victimization (as defined by PREA) in prisons and jails. For example, see two studies by the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS):

  • From February 2011 through May 2012, an estimated 4 percent of state and federal prison inmates and 3.2 percent of jail inmates reported experiencing one or more incidents of sexual victimization by another inmate or facility staff in the 12 months preceding the study—or since admission to the facility, if less than a year ago.[1]
  • A 2008 study found that 9.6 percent of former state inmates reported experiencing at least one incident of sexual victimization during their most recent incarceration.[2] The same study reported that an average of 2 percent of former state inmates serving time in a community-based correctional facility reported being sexually abused by staff or another resident while there. Note that former state inmates are just one of the populations in community confinement.

Information continues to emerge regarding the sexual victimization of juveniles in correctional settings. For example, a BJS study found that 9.5 percent of youth in juvenile confinement facilities reported experiencing one or more incidents of sexual victimization in the year preceding the study—or since their admission, if less than a year.[3] Some highlights of the study are as follows:

  • About 2.5 percent of youth reported an incident involving another youth and 7.7 percent reported an incident involving facility staff. About 3.5 percent reported having sex or sexual contact with staff as a result of force, while 4.7 percent reported sexual contact with staff without any force, threat, or other explicit form of coercion.
  • Male residents (8.2 percent) were more likely than female residents (2.8 percent) to report sexual activity with facility staff, while young women (5.4 percent) were more likely than young men (2.2 percent) to report forced sexual activity with another youth. More than 90 percent of youth who reported staff sexual misconduct said they had been victimized by female facility staff.
  • Youth who identified their sexual orientation as something other than heterosexual had significantly higher rates of sexual victimization by other youth (10.3 percent) than heterosexual youth did (1.5 percent).
  • Youth who had experienced prior sexual assault were more than seven times likelier to report sexual victimization by another youth in the facility than was true of young people who did not report a history of sexual assault.

[1] A. Beck, M. Berzofsky, R. Caspar, and C. Krebs, Sexual Victimization in Prisons and Jails Reported by Inmates, 2011-12 (Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2013). This survey study was conducted in 233 state/federal prisons, 358 local jails, and 15 other correctional facilities (operated by U.S. Armed Forces, Indian tribes, or U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) in 2011 and 2012, with a survey sample of 92,449 inmates ages 18 or older and 1,738 respondents who were ages 16 and 17.

[2] A. Beck and C. Johnson, Sexual Victimization Reported by Former State Prisoners, 2008 (Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2012).

[3] A. Beck, D. Cantor, J. Hartge, and T. Smith, Sexual Victimization in Juvenile Facilities Reported by Youth, 2012 (Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2013). This study was conducted in 326 juvenile confinement facilities with a random sample of 8,707 youth.

Little research has been done on sexual victimization in adult residential and nonresidential community corrections facilities. Journalists have reported on sexual assault in community corrections (see The Impact of National PREA Standards on Community Corrections), but more research is needed to assess the scope of the problem in these settings.

The National PREA Resource Center Library is a good place to learn more about research on the incidence and prevalence of sexual assault in correctional settings.

Sexual assault in the correctional environment

Most sexual assault in community confinement and juvenile detention facilities can be categorized as resident-on-resident assaults or as staff sexual misconduct:[1]

  • Nonconsensual sexual contact between residents in the facility. An individual housed in a correctional facility may coerce another resident into sexual activity. For example, a resident may acquiesce to sexual contact as a result of being threatened, intimidated, or bribed, or to pay off debts for protection, items, or services. Sexual assault may involve physical violence or the threat of it, but not always. Residents and facility staff may not initially perceive sexual contact as sexual assault if it does not involve a threat of violence.
  • Staff sexual misconduct. No sexual activity between corrections staff (employees, contractors, and volunteers) and residents in the facility is consensual, even if one or both parties believe it to be. Given the custodial authority that corrections staff have over individuals in their facilities, there is an unequal power dynamic that makes true consent impossible.

Residents in community confinement who have some level of freedom to leave the facility may experience sexual victimization in the community. Residents in community confinement and juvenile detention may have experienced sexual victimization before arriving at the facility, while in another correctional setting, or in the community.

[1] C. Abner, J. Browning, and J. Clark, Preventing and Responding to Corrections-Based Sexual Abuse: A Guide for Community Corrections Professionals (Lexington, KY: American Probation and Parole Association, with the International Community Corrections Association and Pretrial Justice Institute, 2009).

Barriers to victim reporting

Like victims who are not in custody, individuals in correctional settings often have fears and concerns about reporting sexual assault. Some specific concerns of victims in correctional settings may include the following:[1]

[1] National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, National Prison Rape Elimination Commission Report (Washington, DC: NPREC, 2009); and Vera Institute of Justice, summary memos for the sexual assault forensic protocol in prison, jail, and community confinement work-group meetings (unpublished memos, Feb. 25 and March 15, 2011).

  • fear of retaliation by perpetrators;
  • fear of being placed in isolation in the facility as a protective measure or being sent back to jail or prison from a community confinement facility;
  • fear of losing privileges or freedoms within the facility;
  • fear of being further targeted by sexual predators in the facility;
  • fear of being labeled a “snitch” or “rat” by others in the facility;
  • fear that corrections officials will not respond appropriately or will ignore their report; and/or
  • fear (for boys and men) of being labeled weak, less masculine, gay, or bisexual, and as such, facing significant risk for further sexual assault.

These and other fears and concerns can lead victims in correctional settings not to report or to delay reporting to facility staff, law enforcement, or both. Many are reluctant or choose not to report because of self-blame, feelings of shame, a desire to put the event behind them and move on with their lives, or some combination of those. In addition, they may not identify coerced sexual contact as abusive and may not think to report it.

Potential repercussions for victims

The impact of sexual assault on a victim can vary greatly, because each individual deals with the experience of victimization differently. That said, victims may have common symptoms and reactions to sexual assault:[1]

  • Emotional reactions. These may include depression, shock and disorientation, spontaneous crying, self-blame, despair, anxiety and panic, fearfulness, suicidal thoughts, feeling out of control, irritability, anger, emotional numbness, memory lapses, difficulty making decisions and concentrating, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.
  • Self-harming behavior. Abuse of alcohol or other drugs, self-mutilation, and suicide attempts are common among victims.
  • Physiological reactions. These may include changes in sleep, eating, and hygiene patterns, and aversion to touch.
  • Social behavior. Victims of sexual assault often withdraw from relationships; avoid certain individuals, places, or both; change the way they dress (for example, wearing multiple layers of clothing in public); and may demonstrate aggressive behavior, regression, sexually inappropriate behavior, excessive attachment, or some combination.
  • Physical symptoms and concerns. These may include physical injuries from the assault; pregnancy risk (for women); and exposure to HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

[1] West Virginia Sexual Assault Free Environment Partnership, WV S.A.F.E. Training and Collaboration Toolkit: Serving Sexual Violence Victims with Disabilities (West Virginia Foundation for Rape Information and Services, Northern West Virginia Center for Independent Living, and West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, 2010). References are drawn from the sections “Indicators of Sexual Violence” and “Understanding and Addressing Emotional Trauma.”


A variety of factors influence an individual’s experience of emotional trauma in reaction to sexual assault, including the severity and frequency of the event; his or her personal history (for example, if a prior victimization took place); the person’s coping skills, values, and beliefs; and the level of support the individual has to help him or her heal.[1]

Many factors may exacerbate the emotional trauma experienced by sexual assault victims in correctional settings, including the following:[2]

  • continuous contact with perpetrators;
  • repeated sexual assault, as well as degradation and threats of violence;
  • general distrust and a perception that seeking help is a risk to personal safety;
  • lack of privacy and control over the environment;
  • physical consequences of the sexual assault;[3]
  • punitive consequences imposed by the institution for aggressive or self-destructive reactions to sexual assault; and
  • negative mental health effects of being placed in isolation for protection.

Recovery from sexual abuse can obviously be difficult, especially in correctional facilities. For many people living in these settings, survival is the focus and healing is not yet a consideration. But with support and by using the resources a SART offers, recovery can progress to healing.

[1] Santa Barbara Graduate Institute, Center for Clinical Studies and Research and LA County Early Intervention and Identification Group, Emotional and Psychological Trauma: Causes and Effects, Symptoms and Treatment. (Reprinted from, 2005).

[2] J. Yarussi and B. Smith, The Impact of National PREA Standards on Community Corrections (Washington, DC: National Institute of Corrections and American University, Washington College of Law, Project on Addressing Prison Rape, 2013); and Office on Violence Against Women (OVW), Recommendations for administrators of prisons, jails, and community confinement facilities for adapting the U.S. Department of Justice’s A national protocol for sexual assault medical forensic examinations, adults/adolescents (Washington, D.C.: OVW, 2013).

[3] Victims in corrections settings may be at greater risk than others are for physical assault and subsequent injury during a sexual assault. They may also experience multiple incidents and perpetrators, both of which may contribute to physical injury and heightened risk for contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. (Note that numerous communicable diseases are more prevalent among incarcerated populations.) C. Abner, Preventing and Addressing Sexual Abuse in Tribal Detention Facilities: A Policy Development Guide Lexington, KY: American Probation and Parole Association, 2011; Robert W. Dumond, “Confronting America’s Most Ignored Crime Problem: The Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003,” The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law 31, no. 3 (2003): 354—360; and James E. Robertson, “Rape Among Incarcerated Men: Sex, Coercion and STDs,” AIDS Patient Care and STDs 17, no. 8 (2003): 423–430.

To get a sense of the range of experiences of victims of corrections-based sexual assault, see Just Detention International’s survivor testimony.

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