The shame of incarceration: new evidence on sexual victimization

The power of data to combat denial and distortion is dramatically illustrated in “The Shame of Our Prisons:  New Evidence,” a review of studies carried in the October 24 issue of the New York Review of Books by David Kaiser, chair of the board of Just Detention International (JDI) and Lovisa Stannow, JDI’s executive director. Kaiser and Stannow say that the uniform denial of the widespread problem of prison rape has changed now that good data is available. The carefully conducted surveys by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reviewed by Kaiser and Stannow have found consistent findings: “The same factors that put inmates at risk of sexual abuse show up again and again, as do the same patterns of abuse involving race and gender, inmates and guards.” The data discredits the assertion by prison officials in recent years that inmates fabricate claims of sexual victimization in order to cause trouble.

Kaiser and Stannow report that the studies Sexual Victimization in Prisons and Jails Reported by Inmates, 2011-12: BJS National Inmate Survey (NIS) and Sexual Victimization in Juvenile Facilities Reported by Youth, 2012: BJS National Survey of Youth in Custody (NSYC)] confirm important findings from earlier surveys (e.g., extraordinary numbers of female inmates and guards commit sexual violence) and reveal new aspects of a variety of problems: “…the appalling (though, from state to state, dramatically uneven) prevalence of sexual misconduct by staff members in juvenile detention facilities; the enormous and disproportionate number of mentally ill inmates who are abused sexually; and the frequent occurrence of sexual assault in military detention facilities.”

The lead author of the studies, Allen J. Beck, says declines in the numbers of individuals who are abused are explained by decreases in the number of people going to jail and prison rather than falling rates of abuse. The new studies also confirm previous findings that most of those who commit sexual abuse are corrections staff, not inmates, and that most victims are abused repeatedly. Repeated instances of abuse − eleven or more instances of abuse by staff members in juvenile facilities − are more common than a single instance. The biggest risk factors for abuse are being “non-heterosexual” and having a history of sexual victimization.

Surprisingly, juvenile detainees are safer in adult jails and prisons than youth facilities. Kaiser and Stannow say the reason may be that “staff in adult facilities usually recognize the particular vulnerability of the minors in their care and make special efforts to protect them.” Sadly, these efforts may create other torturous conditions such as solitary confinement.

The authors conclude: “Many juvenile facilities have been more likely to traumatize the youth they confine than to help them; more likely to convert them into hardened career criminals than to steer them away from crime.” Fortunately, a number of states have adopted reforms that have reduced sexual victimization of youth by strengthening therapy and rehabilitation and reducing lock-up periods in smaller facilities closer to their communities. The authors say many states are reforming their systems based on a model first developed in Missouri.

Another new study, State Trends-Legislative Victories from 2011-2013: Removing Youth from the Adult Criminal Justice System, by the Campaign for Youth Justice has found that nearly half the states have enacted legislation to reduce the prosecution of youth in adult criminal courts and to end the placement of youth in adult jails and prisons. While these trends are positive overall, the picture is complicated by the BJS survey finding that juvenile detainees are much safer in adult jails and prisons than in juvenile facilities. This fact brings even more urgency to the imperative to end sexual victimization in all facilities, those for youth as well as adults.

For the first time, the relationship of mental illness to sexual victimization is addressed in the BJS survey, yielding what Kaiser and Stannow identify as the report’s “the most important new findings.” They say “The NIS makes clear that most of the 200,000 people who are sexually abused in our detention facilities every year suffer from serious mental disorders.” In addition, the extent of mental disorders in the incarcerated is established by the survey: Approximately 36.6 percent of prisoners and 43.7 percent of those in jail report they have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness.

The authors make important observations about this deplorable situation: The mental health care system is inadequate to meet the current need; prisons and jails now house people with mental illnesses who would have been institutionalized in specialized psychiatric facilities; and jails and prisons are far from therapeutic. “They are too often places of trauma and abuse where the strong prey on the vulnerable,” the authors emphasize. The deinstitutionalization movement of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s dramatically reduced the number of hospital beds, but sufficient community services to meet the substantial need were not created. At the same time, the census of individuals with mental illnesses in jails and prisons grew. The tragic result as described by Patrick Kennedy recently on MSNBC is that jails in places such as Cook County, Illinois and Los Angeles have become among the largest mental health providers in the country — a situation that could have and should have been prevented by building community services.

The challenge now is to reform the mental health system to make services available as soon as possible to those in need and deliver them in the least restrictive setting possible. Expanding and fortifying community-based services is preferable by far to a rush to build hospital bed capacity. The implementation of the Affordable Care Act and the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act hold the promise to make known effective treatments more readily available to millions of Americans and reduce the need for acute inpatient services.  A new emphasis on prevention and early intervention in the overall health care system will produce a great benefit for mental health care as well.

The implementation of another law, the Prison Rape Elimination Act, will do much to improve conditions in prisons by establishing standards to prevent sexual victimization and collecting the data to gauge whether standards are being met. Unfortunately, as Kaiser and Stannow observe, jails are not under federal authority and many have not allowed their inmates to participate in the surveys, perhaps for fear of having their mismanagement revealed. While efforts are underway to dismantle the prison-industrial complex as described in an earlier blog post, there is an urgent need for activists to continue to pressure for an end to sexual victimization in all detention facilities.

Written By Elizabeth Prewitt

The shame of incarceration: new evidence on sexual victimization was originally published @ ACEs Too High » Elizabeth Prewitt and has been syndicated with permission.

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