August 26, 2010

Report: Sexual abuse rampant in U.S. prisons

I will never forget "Sean," a young man I treated in prison. When he first arrived after a minor theft conviction, the 19-year-old was assigned a cell with an older convict who saw him as fresh meat. When Sean reported being raped, he was moved to a segregation housing unit for safety. Solitary housing was like torture for this active young man. After months without stimulation, he tried to hang himself. He was punished by being transferred to a harsher prison.

Sean came to mind when I saw the report released today from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reporting epidemic levels of sexual abuse of prisoners across the United States. At least 88,500 prison and jail inmates were abused last year, many repeatedly. Several facts in the report, mandatory under the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, are worth highlighting:
  • Guards commit much of the abuse
  • Women prisoners are more at risk from other prisoners, while men are most at risk from guards
  • Gay, transgender, and effeminate prisoners are at heightened risk, as are prisoners with histories of sexual abuse
  • Much of the abuse happens on the first day

The news comes as no surprise to the folks at Just Detention International, an organization dedicated to ending sexual abuse behind bars. They receive dozens of letters a week from prisoners who are being sexually abused.
  • William in Texas wrote that he would misbehave to get locked in the hole just to get away from the guard who was sexually abusing him. He has tried to kill himself, and fears telling his longtime girlfriend.
  • James, a gay prisoner in Michigan, has been raped more than 20 times by numerous prisoners. "Do you know what it's like to see their faces each day? Seeing the look they give me? Knowing that they smile and laugh,” he wrote.
A call for research and action by psychology

Just ahead of the report's release, two psychologists published an article in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law calling for more attention to the problem. "To date, psychology has been largely silent on the issue of prison rape," wrote Tess Neal and Carl Clements of the University of Alabama.

In their article, "Prison Rape and Psychological Sequelae: A Call for Research," Neal and Clements call for research into the "rape subculture" that makes sexual victimization more prevalent in American prisons than elsewhere in the world:
It appears that prison rape in the United States is a much more serious problem than it is in other countries. This fact calls for comparative analysis of systems to look for correlates of victimization rates. What is it about the U.S. prison system that exacerbates the problem of prison rape? Some would argue that inordinately high incarceration rates, and policies that capture more persons with mental disorders is part of the systemic problem. Can these conditions be reversed?
They go on to discuss the "serious and long-lasting" effects of prison rape, "with potentially devastating physiological, social, and psychological components":
Many rapes are violent, bloody, and physically traumatic to victims. Gang rapes are often characterized by extreme abuse and may be particularly traumatic. In addition, the threat and reality of contracting HIV/AIDS has added a new dimension of physical and psychological terror for victims. Loss of social status in the prison facility, labeling, stigmatization, and further victimization are other potential consequences for victims…. The postrape symptoms of prison rape survivors may be even more complex and pervasive than those of other types of sexual assaults based on the fact that many victims are repeatedly assaulted, experience negative social reactions from the prison community, including many staff, and may be perceived as homosexual. The humiliation and perceived loss of one's masculinity, as well as the extensive victim blaming found in prisons could perpetuate the negative psychological effects, possibly increasing the risk of developing PTSD.
The role of expert witnesses

Under the 1994 U.S. Supreme Court case of Farmer v. Brennan, prison administrations are liable when they practice "deliberate indifference" to prison rape. Neal and Clements discuss how expert psychological testimony may be useful in such civil litigation, the authors explain, both to explain the psychological sequelae experienced by prisoners and to discuss the environments that foster prison rape. Further research is also needed into the legal atmosphere surrounding such litigation, they note:
Courtroom dynamics in these atypical cases (e.g., when a male prison rape survivor is a plaintiff filing suit against prison officials) need to be examined. Public biases should be identified so that they can be countered with informative testimony to dispel them. Investigations using the diagnosis of PTSD in these circumstances should be initiated to learn more about how jurors respond to the traumatic aspects of prison rape victimization. As research uncovers more accurate descriptions of the psychological sequelae of such victimization, researchers should examine how jurors respond to these new descriptions in a courtroom setting
The full report by BJS statisticians Allen J. Beck and Paige M Harrison is HERE; selected highlights and a press release are HERE. Correspondence concerning the Psychology, Public Policy, and Law should go to Tess Neal of the University of Alabama.

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