The Problem of Prison Rape in the US


The prison population in the United States is predominantly black and Latino. Further, low-income people make up a large share of the prison population. Most convicted criminals have intellectual challenges, undiagnosed psychiatric conditions, and backgrounds of violent victimization, all of which may contribute to psychosocial problems. These issues aside, U.S. prisons are also facing the challenge of sexual victimization. As is the case with the majority of sexual assaults, prison rape is among the most misreported crimes in the United States. Prison rape exacerbates the dangers in prison situations for both staff and inmates, wastes valuable resources, and jeopardizes rehabilitation. These challenges underpin the importance of understanding the state of prison rape in the U.S.


Sexual assault in prison is a pervasive, systematic issue in many countries. Thus, prison rape affects all individuals irrespective of their gender orientation. Currently, there are over 2 million Americans imprisoned in the America States, and around 1.4 million are being monitored after completing their terms (Gramlich, 2021). Although rare, male rape is frequently reported in the U.S.; hence, this number could be higher in prison facilities where sexual violence is prevalent. This research paper examines prison rape, specifically in the context of U.S. prisons, noting that, despite the low occurrence of rape and sexual assault in correctional facilities, the prevailing dread of such victimization necessitates urgent intervention by prison authorities and policymakers.

Prison Rape Prevalence

This section explores the prevalence of prison rape in terms of widespread occurrences, racial and ethnic prevalence, victims and abusers, and transgender individuals’ prison experiences.

General Statistics

The lack of reliable prison rape statistics continues to be a point of contention, with various studies showing conflicting results. This inconsistency in research underscores the need to rely on official government statistics when reporting the prevalence of prison rape. The Bureau of Justice Figures issued the most current statistics in 2018. According to the report, 24,661 claims of sexual abuse by convicts were made in 2015, almost three times the number made in 2011. Approximately 1,470 of these claims were credible, and 58 percent were verified offenses were committed by prisoners, while 42% were committed by employees (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2018). Additionally, the report notes that between 2012 and 2015, a total of 67,169 claims were made, with 5,187 of them being corroborated (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2018). The report generalizes these cases as sexual victimization; hence distinguishing exact cases related to rape incidents may not be possible.

The report also tries to categorize statistics based on demographics and jail type. Authorities recorded fewer than 8,800 occurrences of sexual victimization in U.S. correctional facilities in 2011. Broadly, between 3% and 9% of male inmates indicate they have been sexually abused, implying that over 180,000 current inmates have been assaulted (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2018). Private prison prisoners are half as likely as public prison detainees to allege sexual abuse by other prisoners; nevertheless, they are almost twice as likely to claim sexual victimization by personnel (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2018). According to officials, 66 percent of occurrences of sexual misbehavior by prison employees include sexual encounters with convicts who “looked to be receptive” (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2018). Conversely, women account for 7% of the overall prison populace, 22% of all detainee-on-detainee sexual assault victims, and 33% of all personnel-on-detainee sexual maltreatment (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2018). In private correctional facilities, the number of detainee-on-detainee assaults was 38 percent greater than in public correctional facilities (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2018). These numbers affirm that prison rape is a problem that policymakers cannot overlook.

Racial and Ethnic Prevalence

Fundamental aspects of ethnicity and race have a complicated and profound impact on the issue of sexual violence perpetrated by inmates on other inmates. Previous research has been established that ethnic and racial disparities are never more visible than in jail, where every social encounter is filtered through the lens of these group variations (Van Cleve & Mayes, 2015). Inter-racial sexual assault is prevalent only when Hispanics or Blacks assault white non-Hispanic inmates. In comparison, Blacks and Hispanic prisoners are far less likely to be assaulted by individuals of other ethnic or racial backgrounds; rather, sexual victimization is more likely to happen inside these categories (Wooldredge & Steiner, 2014). Several previous studies have shown the incidence of black-on-white sexual assault in jail (Wooldredge & Steiner, 2012). While several whites have claimed being raped by white convicts, it seems that African Americans on white assault are more prevalent. Non-Hispanic whites have acknowledged being assaulted by Hispanic convicts, but to a relatively lesser degree (Wooldredge & Steiner, 2012). Without a doubt, the limited data on prison rape by racial and ethnic prevalence is noticeable.

Victims and Abusers

Prison rapists exhibit features that are less distinct and typical than those of other rapists, yet some trends may still be identified. Even though some senior convicts rape people, the offenders are often youthful, if not sometimes as youthful as their victims, and tend to be below 35 years (Tewksbury & Connor, 2014). They are typically physically stronger and bigger than their victims. They are usually more confrontational, overly threatening, and more at ease in the jail surroundings than outside of jail. They are “street smart,” frequently members of a specific gang (Lowe & Rogers, 2017). They have often been sentenced for far more serious crimes than the offenses they were responsible for (Ahlin, 2019). Evidence has shown that there is no such thing as a “gay predator” (Tewksbury & Connor, 2014). In most cases, rapists consider themselves to be heterosexual, and when they are not in jail, they prefer to participate in heterosexual activities. While LGBT prisoners are far more susceptible than other convicts to be abused in jail, they are far less likely to be sexual predators, as shown in the next section.

Transgender Individuals’ Prison Experiences

Transgender prisoners who exhibit more feminine traits have a greater risk of victimization than those who exhibit more “masculine” gender features. Transgender convicts are classed as “queens” due to their feminine sexual identity and mindset and their female physical looks. They are abused, molested, and forced to serve other convicts more than ordinary prisoners (Routh et al., 2017). Transgender female detainees are subjected to maltreatment since the criminal justice system does not consider their sexual identity and orientation when assigning them to accommodation. As a result, they seek refuge from other inmates, beg to be confined, or are placed unwillingly in isolation cells to endure this harsh environment. According to Scott (2013), when released into the overall populace, transgender convicts may want safe partnerships with convicts who hold higher ranks in the hyper-masculine network. This protection is never free and always comes at a price.

In reality, although transgender prisoners are provided with protection from other inmates, they are vulnerable to exploitation by their protective companions. Transgender prisoners are still assaulted and raped, and they are compelled to be servile to preserve the protective coupling between them. Correctional officers and staff members are complicit in the mistreatment of transgender prisoners. Jenness and Fenstermaker (2014) opine that this can be done intentionally or unintentionally because of the lack of training and education offered to correctional officers and the scarcity of resources useable to them to house transgender convicts. It is common practice to employ regulatory segregation or protective supervision to shield transgender convicts from being victimized (Jenness et al., 2019). Notwithstanding the high level of protection and seclusion provided by isolation sections, assault occurs frequently. A case in point is the alleged assault and rape of transgender detainees by other convicts who forced their way into protective confinement units (Smith, 2012). In this context, transgender inmates are the most at-risk group to experience sexual victimization and rape.

Prison Culture and its influence on Sexual Victimization Acceptance

Recognizing rape in correctional facilities necessitates advocates having a grasp of the prison culture, which is distinct. A variety of influences shape prison culture, and although they may be prevalent across different prisons, every prison has a unique culture. Indeed, culture is a conglomeration of ideologies and societal conventions (Depraetere et al., 2020). The rules serve to direct conduct, while ideology serves to interpret it. When it comes to transmitting culture inside correctional facilities, verbal signals are the most crucial factor to consider. It is not via correctional guidebooks that new convicts are taught how to behave in jail or how to “act like convicts” De (Viggiani, 2012). Moreover, most detainees are uneducated, making verbal communication a need for their survival. In essence, convicts carry with them to jail the qualities, customs, and values that they have acquired throughout their life. Furthermore, the fact that jail is a secluded and restricted environment impacts prison life (Wooden, 2012). Ultimately, the design, policies, and practices of correctional facilities influence the institution’s culture.

In general, convicts learn about prison life through talks, gossip, and stories and through listening and seeing other convicts go about their daily lives. A common occurrence is for incoming convicts to obtain lessons from existing inmates on learning and adjusting to prison life as fast as possible (Fedock et al., 2016). Likewise, they may initially be cautioned to avoid being too familiar with individuals since they may be dishonest and crafty and want to abuse them. Additionally, they may be encouraged to abstain from actions that will not be accepted, including borrowing and stealing. More significantly, they are constantly urged to safeguard their physical and emotional well-being and remain strong (Depraetere et al., 2020). Over time, these instructions will evolve into advice such as ‘fight your fights’ and ‘be confident and assertive.’ Finally, the sexual temptation becomes stronger with time, probably because new convicts are informed they could like it if they try (De Viggiani, 2017). This way, new inmates become acculturated and gradually become too comfortable around inmates who appear to care for them.

Convicts’ attitudes of sexual assault are completely antithetical to those held by the general populace. The jail culture is predicated on preconceptions regarding an individual’s mental and physical frailty; victims are frail. There is a victim-blaming mindset, as well as a lack of compassion for the victim’s agony and distress (Sedelmaier & Gaboury, 2015). Many investigations have demonstrated that the dread of sexual abuse has a greater impact on prison life than real incidences of sexual violence. Further, research has shown that fear characterizes new convicts’ perceptions of prison life (Ricciardelli et al., 2015; Crewe et al., 2014). It suffices to say that fear leads to leads to isolation and feeling of being left out if one does not conform to prison life.

Therefore, sex is immensely prized and, on top of being inexpensive or easy to acquire. Products that are forbidden in the correctional institution, like sex, tobacco, street food, cash, narcotics, and luxury commodities, become increasingly desirable as the jail population grows (Wooden, 2012). In this regard, inmates and personnel may trade for products they desire but cannot acquire. Thus, in the jail environment, convicts inadvertently transition from being a criminal to being a victim. A few individuals participate in sexual behavior voluntarily, while others are coerced into it (Ricciardelli et al., 2015). For most convicts, sexual openness is associated with the liberty to explore their desires. Whether one is incarcerated for a brief or lengthy period, sexual expression is among the rare activities over which they have power.

There is numerous research on contextual sexuality in correctional facilities. When detained, the convicts’ sexual expressiveness is restricted by the institution, forcing them to engage in sexual activity with individuals they may not have chosen in the population (Crewe et al., 2014). Other convicts want sex with personnel of the same or different sexual identity. When convicts’ choices are restricted due to their incarceration, even opting to have sex when it is prohibited is a declaration of liberty, although under restricted conditions.

Factors Contributing to Prison Rape

Sexual abuse occurs for a variety of reasons in prison facilities. Overpopulation and growing prison numbers are commonly mentioned factors when investigating violence and safety in the prison setting. Others are accommodating convicts in infrastructure designed for few individuals and running institutions albeit being understaffed with current personnel working longer hours. These factors alongside diminishing support and counselling programs due to budget constraints all add to an environment ripe for sexual misconduct and assault.

Another contributing factor to prison rape is the fear of reporting. Interviews with prison personnel have shown that prisoners are unwilling to disclose that they, or other prisoners, have been sexually abused owing to their dread of retaliation by the accused or other convicts who disapprove of “snitching” (Rocheleau, 2013; Kubiak et al., 2018). As such, prisoners who disclose any form of sexual harassment may be exposed to greater abuse or worry they may be the object of continuing aggression. Survivors may also decline physical or psychological health treatment as they are not compelled to help with the inquiry (Wooden, 2012). This is true in women’s prisons, where the natural asymmetry of control between convicts and officers is reinforced by the cross-gender disparity of control between males and females.

Correctional personnel, particularly male guards, are liable for practically all facets of a female prisoner’s life and have considerable control over that person. Although sexual violence rates in women’s jails differ vastly, in the harshest institutions, as many as one in four inmates may be abused (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2018). A particularly dreadful element of sexual assault in jail is that the victim has no option of escaping from the hands of their rapist. They have full exposure to the guard who raped them, no matter where they go. This constant interaction also helps to strengthen the female’s fear of retribution should she choose to disclose the rape to the authorities (Fedock et al., 2016; Kubiak et al., 2017). Revenge is a key source of anxiety for many people in prison. Females in jail have a lot to worry about since their rapist, for example, has virtually full authority over them if he is an officer. These precarious prison environments help to create a culture of silence that ensures that violent crimes such as crime go unreported, which further increases the problem.

Consequences of Prison Rape

The effects of rape are consistent with other forms of sexual abuse and can be physical or psychological. Firstly, the risk of HIV infection increases significantly for survivors of prison rape (Downer & Trestman, 2016). There is also the increased risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections such as syphilis. Second, rape has profound and long-lasting psychological consequences for the victim. Whether victims of brutal sexual assaults or more mild types of sexual harassment, prisoners exit the criminal justice system in a condition of profound mental trauma. They may develop Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) or Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (Downer & Trestman, 2016). Rape victims have a higher suicide risk than the general population because of these factors.

Conclusion and Recommendation

Ultimately, to prevent rape in prison, correctional facilities must adhere to the guidelines stipulated in the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) of 2003. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) is required under the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 to provide a complete statistical examination and assessment of the frequency and impacts of prison rape annually (Struckman-Johnson & Struckman-Johnson, 2013). Such data can be used to identify, respond to, and deter sexual abuse in prison. It must be stressed that practically any inmate may be in danger of sexual violence if the conditions are not right for them. Correct categorization and surveillance of susceptible inmates must be part of a rape deterrence strategy.


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DemoEssays. "The Problem of Prison Rape in the US." February 23, 2023.