Sexual Victimization

Despite professed zero tolerance for sexual victimization in prison, such activity continues. Public awareness of prison rape and sexual assault (male and female) is a relatively recent development although its prevalence has occurred for decades. In 2001, the Human Rights Watch released a paper, “No Escape: Male Rape in U.S. Prisons,” that was the seminal event leading up to the passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 (PREA).[14, 15] The Act called for a zero-tolerance policy regarding rape in prisons; called for the development of national standards to prevent and detect sexual violence in state and federal prisons; and provided a framework to make corrections facilities more accountable for incidents of prison rape.

PREA also applies to all federal immigration detention centers. Also inherent in the act is the stipulation that failure to comply with the provisions of PREA would result in a 5 percent reduction of federal funding to a facility for each year that it was not compliant.

A major part of the PREA was the establishment of a National Prison Rape Reduction Commission designed to undertake a study on the comprehensive effects and occurrences of prison rape. PREA pertained to adult and juvenile detention facilities. Of note is that young first-time offenders are at an increased risk for sexually motivated crimes.

Although juveniles held in adult facilities are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted than juveniles held in juvenile facilities,[16] almost one-third of all allegations of sexual violence reported in state juvenile facilities were youth-on-youth nonconsensual sexual acts, such as rape and forcible sodomy, and one-fifth were youth-on-youth abusive sexual contact, such as unwanted touching or grabbing with the intention to exploit sexually. During 2005 and 2006, 4,000 allegations of sexual violence involved youth held in juvenile facilities.[17]

One-third of all allegations of sexual violence reported in state juvenile systems and local or private juvenile facilities involved staff sexual misconduct. Females were more likely to be victims of staff sexual violence than victims of youth-on-youth sexual violence. Force or threat of force was more common among male victims in youth-on-youth incidents. The majority of incidents of sexual violence took place outside the victim’s room or dormitory.  In all substantiated incidents of youth-on-youth sexual violence, one in eight victims were injured and two-thirds required medial attention or counseling.[17]

As of 2007, an estimated 4.5 percent of state and federal prisoners reported sexual assault. Approximately 2 percent of the reported incidents involved another inmate while 3 percent involved facility staff members. These statistics do not take into account whether the act was consensual or not. A small proportion (less than 1 percent) reported being injured by the sexual victimization; injuries included anal or vaginal tearing, knife or stab punctures, broken bones, bruises, black eyes, and other less serious injuries.

These statistics are based on a survey that consisted of an audio computer-assisted self-interview in which inmates used a touch screen laptop and interacted with a computer-assisted questionnaire.[18] Inmate participation was voluntary and the results represent inmate allegations. Hence, some inmates may not have felt comfortable completing the survey resulting in an undercount or underestimate of the actual number of incidents, and others might have made false allegations or unfounded allegations.


Madelon L. Finkel, PhD
Madelon L. Finkel, PhD, is professor of clinical public health and director of the Office of Global Health Education at the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, NY. Dr Finkel is an epidemiologist whose work focuses on women’s health issues. Her interests also include global public health issues with ongoing research projects in rural India and Peru. Dr. Finkel has published extensively, including Praeger’s Understanding the Mammography Controversy: Science, Politics, and Breast Cancer Screening and Truth, Lies, and Public Health: How We Are Affected When Science and Politics Collide.



  1. Walmsley R. World prison population list. 7th ed.
  2. Wikipedia. Prisoner population rate 2007-2008.
  3. Mauer M. Comparative international rates of incarceration: an examination of causes and trends: Presented to the US Commission on Civil Rights; June 20, 2003; Washington, DC.
  4. US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Office of Justice Programs. Correction statistics.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Federal Bureau of Investigation. FBI uniform crime report.
  7. Maruschak LM for US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Office of Justice Programs. Medical problems of prisoners.
  8. Griefinger RB, Heywood NJ, Glaser JB. Tuberculosis in prison: balancing justice and public health. J Law Med Ethics. 1993;21:332-341.
  9. World Health Organization. Tuberculosis in prisons.
  10. Shalit M, Lewin MR. Medical care of prisoners in the USA. Lancet. 2004;364:34-35.

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