Prison, Detention, and Correctional Institutions

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Prison, Detention, and Correctional Institutions

Most prisons and jails have rules that prohibit inmates from engaging in sexual activity with staff or each other. Notwithstanding these policies, prisons and jails remain highly sexualized environments in which a great deal of sexual activity, including consensual sex as well as harassment and sexual coercion, takes place. The physical nature of incarceration contributes to the sexualized nature of imprisonment. Imprisonment involves physical restraint, surveillance of prisoners' bodies, and the concentration of prisoners in crowded spaces. In addition, prison subcultures appear to place great importance on sexual and gender roles, so that sexual identities become very important to the experience of incarceration.


There is very little reliable empirical research on overall rates of sexual activity in prisons. The U.S. prison population is overwhelmingly male, and most existing studies of sex in prison focus on nonconsensual sex among male prisoners. These studies have produced highly divergent reports. Some studies estimate that as many as 15 to 20 percent of male inmates are victims of sexual assaults by other inmates (Struckman-Johnson 2000, Struckman-Johnson 1996), whereas other researchers have found much lower rates of victimization, closer to 1 percent or even less (Saum 1995, Nacci and Kane 1983).

The image of prison rape prevalent in popular culture—attacks by physically violent predators against weak and naive new prisoners—appears to capture only a very small portion of inmate sexual assaults in male prisons. Studies show that young, white, first-time offenders are more likely to be the target of sexual coercion, and correspondingly aggressors are more likely to be experienced, long-term prisoners. But most coerced sex does not involve an act or direct threat of physical violence (Human Rights Watch 2001, Struckman-Johnson 2000). Instead, many prisoners who recognize themselves as vulnerable will trade sex for protection. In prison slang, a punk may agree to have sex with a man, Daddy, or jocker in an ongoing relationship in which the punk may expect his man to protect him. Coerced sex is apparently often interracial: aggressors tend to be disproportionately African-American and their targets are disproportionately white (Human Rights Watch 2001, Lockwood 1980). It is unclear whether this pattern is traceable to specific racial animus or is simply the result of sentencing patterns in the United States, where prisoners serving repeat or long sentences are disproportionately African-American. Some researchers argue that prisoners serving a sentence for a sex offense are themselves more likely to be the victim of a sexual assault behind bars, but this claim has not been substantiated by empirical research.

By prisoners' own reports as well as empirical studies based on interviews or surveys, many inmates choose to engage in sexual activity for reasons other than fear of immediate or possible violence. Prisoners sometimes have sex in exchange for money, food, cigarettes, drugs, or other valuable items. Moreover, like persons outside of prison, prisoners sometimes have sex for physical gratification or as part of an emotionally committed relationship. Few researchers have tried to determine the prevalence of consensual sex among prisoners, but those who have addressed the issue suggest that consensual sex is far more common than coerced sex (Saum 1995). Most prisons have official rules that prohibit prisoners from having sexual intercourse; some institutions also prohibit masturbation. These rules do not actually stop such activities from occurring, but they almost certainly shape prisoners' decisions about whether to report sexual assaults. Prohibitions against sexual activity may contribute to one of the greatest difficulties facing prison sex researchers: the assessment of whether a particular sex act is consensual or not.

Both external and internal prison observers have difficulty distinguishing between coerced and consensual sex. The existing studies do not use consistent definitions of consent and coercion; some studies fail to define these terms at all. Most prisons are sufficiently dangerous and unpleasant that the prison environment could be said to be inherently coercive. Of course, distinguishing between coercive and consensual sex is difficult even beyond the prison context. But the peculiar environment of the prison makes this distinction especially elusive.

Studies of sexual activity face other methodological problems. Prisoners are reluctant to participate in research studies: a prison code of silence creates a strong norm against reporting fellow prisoners' misbehavior. Even among those prisoners who disclose information, there are incentives both to underreport (to avoid reprisals or breaking the code of silence) and to overreport (to gain attention or to protest prison conditions generally) sexual violence in prison. In 2003 the Prison Rape Elimination Act became law in the United States. This legislation mandates record-keeping, reporting, and research on sexual violence in prison. These requirements may eventually produce better information about the issue.

Even beyond actual incidents of coerced or consensual sexual activity, sexual dynamics shape prison life profoundly. Researchers as well as former prisoners describe a prison subculture that "fuses sexual and social roles and assigns all prisoners accordingly" (Donaldson 1993, p. 118). To a significant extent, prisoners appear to be defined by their identities as aggressors, victims, or nonparticipants in sexual encounters as well as sexual harassment. Sometimes sexual aggressors force their victims to clean, do laundry, or even alter their appearances to appear more feminine. Some victims are treated as property and rented or sold as sexual slaves.

Assessment by researchers of these sexually defined roles has changed over time. Early studies of prison sex approach the subject as one of the psychology of homosexual preferences, distinguishing true homosexuals from situational homosexuals. Many of the older studies advanced a heterosexual deprivation thesis that assumed that 1) sexual orientation is fixed; 2) most inmates are heterosexual; and 3) heterosexual males need regular sexual activity or they will suffer deprivation and turn to same-sex intercourse as a poor but necessary substitute.

More recent studies tend to incorporate two critical claims of gender theorists and feminists. One claim is that sexual identities and the significance of those identities are at least partly socially constructed rather than based entirely on fixed biological differences. Another claim is that (constructed) sexual differentiation is often a site upon which to ground inequality. Researchers' use of differentiated sexual categories to organize hierarchies in male prisons gives considerable support to these claims.

Reported constructions of sexuality inside prisons do not always correspond to constructions of sexuality that are common outside of prisons. Prisoners do not view all participants in male-to-male sexual contact as homosexual. Many researchers emphasize the intensely masculine atmosphere of male prisons. Some of these conceptions may be changing, however. According to some reports, many male prisoners describe a general understanding among prisoners that sexuality is fluid rather than fixed.

Corrections officers or other staff have on occasion encouraged or exploited sexual hierarchies among prisoners. There are reported incidents (some resulting in litigation) in which staff have intentionally placed vulnerable inmates with known sexual aggressors; in addition, staff in many institutions seem to tacitly accept and sometimes encourage punk-daddy relationships. By some reports, prison officials on occasion use sexual humiliation or orchestrated sexual violence as a disciplinary measure. Some of the most notorious incidents of deliberate sexual humiliation of prisoners occurred at the hands of U.S. military personnel at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. There have been reports of similar, though less well-documented, sexual abuse in some prisons within the United States.


Less research is available on women prisoners than on men. With respect to coerced sex, existing studies suggest lower rates of inmate-on-inmate assault in women's prisons than in male-only institutions. In one study, 7 percent of female inmates reported being sexually assaulted by another inmate (Struckman-Johnson 1996). Published letters from one prisoner describe patterns of assault somewhat similar to those in male prisons, in which sexual aggressors establish ongoing relationships of domination over their victims and require their victims to clean, do laundry, or otherwise play a domestic and subservient role. According to the same source, heterosexual women viewed by prison staff as feminine may be more likely to initiate sexual aggression, in part because staff view such prisoners as nonthreatening and give them more leeway. Openly lesbian and bisexual women may be more likely to be targets of sexual aggression. Racial tensions in women's prisons are not reported to be as high as they are in men's prisons, and researchers have not reported racial patterns in sexual violence among women prisoners. As with male prisoners, however, the existing studies of prison sex do not have clear definitions of consent and coercion, and the rate and nature of sexual assault in prison remains an area about which very little is known.

Early studies of purportedly consensual sex in women's prisons reported that prisoners formed "pseudofamilies" and dyadic sexual relationships that mimicked domestic familial relationships outside of prison. More recent research reports that women prisoners who choose sexual relationships do so primarily for economic reasons (to get money or goods from commissary), and many women prisoners emphasize the manipulative nature of most sexual relationships between inmates. However there continue to be some reports of caring, intimate relationships among women prisoners.

Some sources report that female prisoners are much more likely to be sexually assaulted by staff members than are male prisoners (Human Rights Watch 1996). Assaults or harassment by staff members have produced a considerable amount of litigation, and women prisoners appear to be somewhat more successful in the courts than are male prisoners.

Pregnant women prisoners face particular challenges. Access to adequate health care is not always available. In addition, most prisons either prevent or restrict greatly women prisoners' access to abortions. Although some prisoners have brought legal challenges to the denial of access to abortion, these challenges have usually been unsuccessful as courts have applied a legal standard that is deferential to prison administrators.


Some researchers have suggested that the rates of sexual assaults may be higher for juvenile offenders and in immigration detention centers. In immigration centers, overcrowding, inadequate access to counsel or outside monitors, and cultural and language differences appear to create a higher prevalence of sexual assaults (Stop Prisoner Rape 2004). When juveniles are incarcerated in adult prisons, they are estimated to be five times more likely to be victims of sexual assault (Stop Prisoner Rape 2006).

The few available studies that address sex in prisons outside the United States report assault rates from 1 percent (Banbury 2004) to 2 percent (Butler et al. 2002). One study found a higher victimization rate of 5 percent for sexual coercion (defined more broadly than rape) (Banbury 2004). There is no evidence of racial patterns to sexual abuse in foreign prisons, although this is an area on which there has been very little research.


Among both male and female prisoners, the rate of sexually transmitted diseases is higher than in the general population. HIV and AIDS are particular problems; reports at the state level in the United States estimate that prison populations have HIV-infection rates of three to five times the infection rate of the population as a whole. In the United States, prisons are required by law to provide basic medical care to inmates, but the quality of care actually provided is often insufficient. Most prisons do not make condoms or other forms of protection available to prisoners.


Sex and sexual identities appear to structure the experience of incarceration in profound ways. Even beyond the specific acts of sex, harassment, or sexual stereotyping discussed above, there is a further way in which prison is inherently sexualized and will remain sexualized even if sexual coercion is successfully reduced. Prison is sexualized to the extent that prisoners remain sexual beings. Prison life precludes almost any degree of privacy. Accordingly the sexuality of prisoners is continually visible to other prisoners and to the prison staff. Measures promoted by the Prison Rape Elimination Act, such as increased surveillance, are likely only to increase the lack of privacy and the extent to which prison life is sexualized.


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                                               Alice Ristroph

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Prison, Detention, and Correctional Institutions

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