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Report Documents Sexual Violence in Prisons


For the first time, the Justice Department has compiled statistics on the number of inmates raped or sexually assaulted in prison. Prison advocates have called for a report like this for more than a decade, but it was not until Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act two years ago that this report became a reality. Prison experts say it is full of information that no one has seen before. NPR's Laura Sullivan reports.


According to the Bureau of Justice statistics, 2,100 inmates were raped or sexually assaulted in prisons across the country last year. No state escaped unscathed. Women guards were just as culpable as their male counterparts. And private prisons did no better than government-run facilities. But there's no way to tell if prisons and jails are doing better or worse at preventing prison rape because there's never been a national count before.

Mr. ALLEN BECK (Wrote Justice Department Report): It is the first study that's ever been done and, certainly, no study has ever been this large or comprehensive.

SULLIVAN: Allen Beck wrote the report for the Justice Department. He and his team conducted surveys of almost every prison or jail in the country. He says it's tough to get accurate numbers because the issue of rape and sexual assaults in prison is so sensitive.

Mr. BECK: In correctional settings, there are going to be others who don't come forward for one reason or another. We simply don't know how many.

SULLIVAN: Beyond the more than 2,000 cases of rapes and assaults that could be proven, investigators found 8,000 other incidents where prisoners alleged abuse. In those cases, there wasn't enough evidence or it was just a prisoner's word against that of a guard or another inmate. Jamie Fellner is the US program director at Human Rights Watch and a member of the commission set up to investigate prison rape. She says the report underestimates the amount of abuse in prisons.

Ms. JAMIE FELLNER (Human Rights Watch): We know from the incidents of sexual abuse that Human Rights Watch and many other groups have documented that there is considerable sexual abuse in prisons. It's the tip of the iceberg, though, that we know, and we don't know how big the iceberg itself actually is.

SULLIVAN: Fellner says one of the most striking things in the study is how differently states are monitoring the problem.

Ms. FELLNER: In California, the incidents of reported inmate-on-inmate rape were all substantiated, whereas in Kansas, for example, hardly any of the allegations were substantiated.

SULLIVAN: The report identifies all sorts of inappropriate contact, including women guards who form long-term relationships with male inmates. In fact, at state prisons, most of the staff's sexual misconduct was done by female guards. Brenda Smith, another member of the commission on prison rape, who has studied this issue for 20 years, says the report's imperfect but she's grateful to have some real numbers to add to the debate.

Ms. BRENDA SMITH: You always got to a point in the discussion where people would say, `Yeah, this happens but it doesn't happen very frequently,' and that it's really not a big problem. And I think that these numbers begin to start saying that it is a problem, that it's something that state and local authorities need to care about and that the federal government cares about.

SULLIVAN: The Bureau of Justice statistics is now turning its attention to individual states and specific facilities to start figuring out where prison rape is the worse and why.

Laura Sullivan, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: You can find a link to the full report at npr.org.

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laura Sullivan is an NPR News investigative correspondent whose work has cast a light on some of the country's most significant issues.
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