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Prison rape commonly refers to the rape of inmates in prison by other inmates or prison staff. In 2010, Human Rights Watch estimated that at least 140,000 inmates had been raped while incarcerated. A United States Department of Justice report, Sexual Victimization in Prisons and Jails Reported by Inmates, states that "In 2011-12, an estimated 4.0% of state and federal prison inmates and 3.2% of jail inmates reported experiencing one or more incidents of sexual victimization by another inmate or facility staff in the past 12 months or since admission to the facility, if less than 12 months." However, advocates dispute the accuracy of the numbers, saying they seem to under report the real numbers of sexual assaults in prison, especially among juveniles.
A meta-analysis published in 2004 found a prevalence rate of 1.91% with a 95% confidence interval between 1.37–2.46%. In a survey of 1,788 male inmates in Midwestern prisons by Prison Journal, about 21% claimed they had been coerced or pressured into sexual activity during their incarceration, and 7% claimed that they had been raped in their current facility. According to the study conducted by the United States Department of Justice for the year 2006, there were 2,205 allegations of inmate-on-inmate non-consensual sexual acts reported in the U.S. prison system, 262 of which were substantiated.
Research has shown that juveniles incarcerated with adults are five times more likely to report being victims of sexual assault than youth in juvenile facilities, and the suicide rate of juveniles in adult jails is 7.7 times higher than that of juvenile detention centers.
In the United States, public awareness of the phenomenon of prison rape is a relatively recent development and estimates to its prevalence have varied widely for decades. In 1974 Carl Weiss and David James Friar wrote that 46 million Americans would one day be incarcerated; of that number, they claimed, 10 million would be raped. A 1992 estimate from the Federal Bureau of Prisons conjectured that between 9 and 20 percent of inmates had been sexually assaulted. Studies in 1982 and 1996 both concluded that the rate was somewhere between 12 and 14 percent; the 1996 study, by Cindy Struckman-Johnson, concluded that 18 percent of assaults were carried out by prison staff. A 1986 study by Daniel Lockwood put the number at around 23 percent for maximum security prisons in New York. Christine Saum's 1994 survey of 101 inmates showed 5 had been sexually assaulted. Among women the number is one in forty and the offenders are more likely to be prison staff members.
Prison rape cases have drastically risen in recent years, mostly attributed to an increase in counseling and reports. The threat of AIDS, which affects many of those raped in prison, has also resulted in the increase of reported cases for the benefit of medical assistance.
A prevalent issue that occurs because of prison rape is the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, in December 2008, a total of 21,987 inmates in both federal and state prisons were HIV positive or were confirmed to have AIDS. Prisons and jails currently hold significantly high rates of HIV compared to the general population at large. Though ignored, there is evidence that rape and other forms of sexual violence assist in transmitting STDs. Violent forms of unprotected vaginal or anal intercourse have the highest risk of transmitting an STD. Especially for the receptive partner, outcomes of coerced sex tear the membrane of the anus or vagina and cause profuse bleeding. Despite the increasing number of prisoners with sexually transmitted diseases, reliable statistics on prisoners who have received STDs due to prison rape are unavailable. Many reports of sexual abuse of either coerced vaginal or anal intercourse remain unreported.
Mass overcrowding has become a serious issue within federal and state prisons, which greatly contributes to the prevalence of sexual abuse. The prison population has dramatically increased over the last couple of years due to policies such as increasing sentencing laws and the War on Drugs. Prisoners thus become more vulnerable to HIV infections and other sexually transmitted diseases because of the lack of space and resources available to them. With a larger prison population to watch over, there is less supervision and protection offered to prisoners and many become subject to abuse, including prison rape. Overcrowding of prisons affects not only prison populations, but acts as a serious public health issue and can adversely affect society’s health as a whole. Released individuals can easily transfer an STD to others within the larger society. Therefore, it is crucial to prevent the transmission of infectious diseases within prisons.
There are rarely any resources available for the prevention of STD transmission. Some systems, like city and county jail systems, do not actively seek to identify and treat inmates with STDs. Despite being highly recommended by public health officials, preventative materials to the transmission of STDs, including condom distribution, HIV testing, and counseling and risk assessment, are rarely accessible to prisoners.
In prison rape, the perpetrator and victim are almost always the same sex (due to the gender-segregated nature of prison confinement). As such, a host of issues regarding sexual orientation and gender roles are associated with the topic.
In U.S. male prisons, rapists generally identify themselves as heterosexual and confine themselves to non-receptive sexual acts. Victims, commonly referred to as "punks" or "bitches", may or may not be seen as homosexual. "Punks" is a term for those who are generally confined to performing receptive sexual acts. Moreover, though "punks" are coerced into a sexual arrangement with an aggressor in exchange for protection, these men generally consider themselves heterosexual.
Inmates who are transgender face further difficulties, and Just Detention International asserts that such inmates are almost certain to be sexually assaulted in prison. Some prisons separate known homosexuals, bisexuals, and transgender people from the general prison population to prevent rape and violence against them. Not surprisingly, many heterosexuals identify themselves to authorities as homosexuals so that they will be sent to the 'gay tank' where they will be protected from homosexual rape.[original research?] There are, however, other methods to get oneself segregated from population, such as rule infractions or feigned suicide attempts. Other inmates have resorted to killing their rapist (or probable future rapist), particularly those who already have long sentences and are thus virtually immune from further legal consequences.
Shame regarding perceived homosexuality may contribute to the under-reporting of prison rape by victims. Prison rape statistics are much higher than reported, as many victims are afraid to report, being threatened with physical violence by rapists if reported, as well as staff indifference.
The bill calls for the gathering of national statistics about the problem; the development of guidelines for states about how to address prisoner rape; the creation of a review panel to hold annual hearings; and the provision of grants to states to combat the problem. "Unfortunately, in many facilities throughout the country sexual abuse continues virtually unchecked," said Stemple. "Too often, corrections officers turn a blind eye, or in the case of women inmates, actually perpetrate the abuse. We hope federal legislation will not only create incentives for states to take this problem seriously, but also give facilities the tools and information they need to prevent it."
Many human rights groups, such as the Human Rights Watch and Stop Prisoner Rape, have cited documented incidents showing that prison staff tolerate rape as a means of controlling the prison population in general.
The topic of prison rape is relatively common in American humor. Jokes such as "don't drop the soap" seem to suggest that prison rape is an expected consequence of being sent to prison. This phenomenon is exemplified by the 2006 U.S. feature film Let's Go to Prison or the board game Don't Drop the Soap being marketed by John Sebelius, the son of Kathleen Sebelius. Songs have also been composed about the topic, e.g. the song "Prisoner of Love" by radio personalities Bob and Tom, performing as "Slam and Dave".
U.S. Federal law, under the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, calls for the compilation of national prison rape statistics, annual hearings by a review panel, and the provision of grants to the states to address prison rape. A first, highly-controversial and disputed study, funded under the PREA by Mark Fleisher, concludes prison rape is rare: "Prison rape worldview doesn't interpret sexual pressure as coercion," he wrote. "Rather, sexual pressure ushers, guides or shepherds the process of sexual awakening."
In 2012, the US Justice department issued nationally enforceable protocols to all correctional institutions to expand upon the provisions of the 2003 PREA ACT. The move is an effort to prevent, detect and respond to prison rape more effectively. The measure includes numerous provisions, such as barring juveniles from being housed with adult inmates, a ban on cross-gender pat-down searches, video monitoring and special attention to lesbian, gay, transgender or bisexual inmates vulnerable to abuse. Attorney General, Eric Holder noted that “these standards are the result of a thoughtful and deliberative process – and represent a critical step forward in protecting the rights and safety of all Americans.”