It’s Time to End the Epidemic of Prisoner Rape

When Bryson Martel was sentenced to six years in prison for check fraud, he was 28 years old, weighed 123 pounds, and was scared to death. He had good reason to be afraid. Within weeks of his arrival, he was beaten and raped at knifepoint. Martel reported the assault to staff, who moved him to “protective custody” – into a cell with a known rapist.

Days later, he was raped again.

Prison authorities should have taken particular care to protect Martel’s safety, knowing that he was a target for abuse. They didn’t, and the assaults continued. Over the course of nine months, Martel estimates he was raped by 27 different people. Ultimately, he was infected with HIV, and now has full-blown AIDS.

“I know I had to pay the price for what I did, but I’ve paid double,” Martel says. “That check I wrote cost me my life.”

Martel’s experience is far from unique. At least 60,500 federal and state prison inmates were sexually abused at their current facility in the preceding year alone, according to a 2007 nationwide study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). A similar study revealed that nearly 25,000 county jail detainees were sexually abused in the prior six months. This violence is not limited to adult prisoners – in January, another BJS report found that almost one in eight youth in juvenile detention reported being sexually abused in the preceding year; at the worst facilities, one in three kids were victimized.

No matter where it occurs, sexual violence shatters lives. Unlike rape survivors in the community, however, survivors behind bars often have no choice but to suffer in silence. Prison mental health counselors rarely have expertise in sexual assault, and they cannot provide confidential services. Because of the danger of being labeled a “snitch,” fear of retaliation, and lack of trust in corrections officials, most incarcerated survivors are too afraid to report an assault and so avoid the limited counseling available from prison staff. This, in turn, leads to long-term emotional trauma and untreated medical conditions.

Women behind bars, who may become pregnant from rapes committed by male staff, lack access to the full range of reproductive health options. Many victimized inmates are infected with HIV and other STDs, which are far more prevalent among prisoners than in the community at large. Yet corrections facilities often fail to provide proper screening and treatment for STDs. In short, sexual violence behind bars is a public health and a human rights crisis.

Disturbingly, many corrections officials continue to deny that sexual abuse is a problem in their facilities. Such indifference is reinforced by misguided public perceptions that prisoner rape is inevitable, or, even worse, a joke. “Guards knew what was happening and looked the other way,” says Troy Erik Isaac, who was raped at age 12 in a California juvenile facility. “People would take advantage of me and I just didn’t know how to get help.”

Officials are required to protect inmates in their charge. Nothing could be more grotesquely opposed to this responsibility than sexually abusing them. Yet the BJS reports consistently showed that staff –-not other inmates-–were responsible for most sexual victimization. Even more appalling, staff sexual abuse is particularly common in juvenile facilities, where the BJS found that corrections staff perpetrated more than 80 percent of the reported abuse.

Survivor Chino Hardin describes her experience in a New York juvenile facility: “The corrections officers allowed certain boys to enter the cells of girls that the officers did not like or said were not behaving well. I often heard girls screaming in fear at two or three o’clock in the morning. In my one month there, three different girls told me they were raped by boys who corrections officers allowed into their cells. I was terrified and did my best to keep a low profile so that I would not be targeted.”

Hardin’s story is heartbreakingly common, yet prisoner rape is preventable – it is not an unavoidable part of incarceration. While some facilities are plagued by sexual abuse, others are virtually free from it. Stopping sexual violence in detention is a matter of committed leadership, strong policies, and sound practices. For example, facilities that consistently separate detainees who are vulnerable to abuse (such as gay and transgender inmates) from likely predators are able to reduce sexual violence dramatically. Safe and well-run facilities make it clear to staff and inmates – in policy as well as practice – that sexual abuse simply will not be tolerated.

The Constitution bars corrections agencies from inflicting cruel and unusual punishment, and the Supreme Court has recognized that prisoner rape may amount to such a constitutional violation. In addition, rape and sexual abuse is illegal throughout the country. Nevertheless, prisoners and advocates face tremendous barriers when seeking to hold officials accountable for failing to protect inmates. For example, federal law requires inmates who have been sexually assaulted while incarcerated to navigate the full internal grievance process at their facility before going to court – no matter how complicated, unrealistic, or illogical that process may be. Any misstep and a judge must dismiss the lawsuit. The courts play a meaningful role in holding public institutions accountable for civil rights violations – absent this oversight, impunity reigns and prisoner rape flourishes.

But now we have a tool that could significantly improve safety behind bars. Last June, the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission issued recommended standards to address sexual abuse in all forms of detention. The federal Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, passed by a unanimous Congress, created the Commission and mandated the drafting of the standards.

Developing the standards was no slap-dash effort. They are the result of almost six years of deliberation, public hearings, and review. Corrections officials, advocates, legal experts, and survivors of prisoner rape all contributed to the process. The final recommendations represent a hard-reached compromise among these different stakeholders.

Bold, yet basic, these common-sense measures have the potential to become the most powerful tool so far in the effort to end sexual abuse in detention. The standards address core issues such as staff training, detainee education, housing, investigations, and medical and mental health care in the aftermath of an assault. They make it clear that prisoner rape can be prevented, and that there are straightforward steps prisons and jails can take to end this type of violence. The standards draw on best practices already in use around the country and some corrections agencies are working to implement them even before they are required to do so.

The Prison Rape Elimination Act gave the Attorney General one year from the release of the standards to review and codify them as federal regulations, making them binding on all detention facilities in the country. But after well over nine months, it is clear that Attorney General Eric Holder will not make the deadline of June 23, 2010. It may be another year – or more – before Holder releases the final guidelines. In that time, thousands and thousands more adults and children will be raped behind bars.

Some corrections leaders are happy to delay the implementation of the standards. Alarmingly, leading corrections associations are challenging key provisions, including requirements that cross-gender supervision be limited in areas where inmates are nude and that all facilities undergo regular external audits. Such measures – already in place in the rest of the developed world – could dramatically lower the levels of prisoner rape in the United States. According to opponents, however, they are too costly.

In response to such criticism, the Justice Department has commissioned a cost projection study of the standards that is both biased and delaying the review process. The study is not a cost-benefit analysis; it fails to account for the enormous benefits of the standards and is based solely on estimated expenses provided by corrections administrators. Corrections officials who oppose the standards have an obvious incentive to exaggerate their anticipated costs — and so do officials who support the standards, since they also want and need more funding than is usually appropriated.

The argument that it is too expensive to stop prisoner rape is not only morally questionable, but also incorrect. In reality, any prison or jail that has basic policies and practices in place to protect its detainees, as all detention facilities are legally required to do, will not incur substantial costs by complying with the standards.Sexual abuse in detention costs states millions of dollars every year in prisoner abuse lawsuits alone. When victims require medical care, as they often do, corrections systems must cover the cost. Inmates who are traumatized while incarcerated suffer long-term harm that often prevents them from becoming self-sufficient members of society upon release. Making the standards binding on corrections agencies will reduce these costs – and it’s simply the right thing to do.

In an important step forward, the Department of Justice opened a public comment period on March 10, 2010. The Department is seeking input on the standards generally, and has posed three specific questions regarding the terminology, the costs of implementation, and compliance requirements. If history is any guide, corrections officials and their lobbyists will weigh in en masse, opposing the standards. During the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission’s public comment period in 2008, on a draft version of the standards, more than 100 corrections departments and associations submitted comments.

Right now, supportive public comments are vital to ensuring that the Attorney General promulgates strong standards.

Just Detention International has mobilized a coalition to demonstrate the strong support for the standards that exists across U.S. society — including among corrections officials who recognize the urgency of ending prisoner rape and understand the importance of the standards. Members of the Raising the Bar for Justice and Safety Coalition are submitting comments urging the Attorney General to enact the standards fully and quickly. Anyone who cares about ending sexual abuse behind bars can send letters in support of the standards to Justice Department.

Survivors of sexual violence know first-hand about the urgent need for the standards.  Kimberly Yates was raped repeatedly by an officer at a federal detention center. The officer who assaulted her had previously raped at least four other women – and some of them had told the authorities, but nothing was done. “If the national standards had been in place, I might never have been raped,” says Yates. “How many women could the Bureau of Prisons have spared if they had taken notice of what they were told?”

The effort to end prisoner rape is at a watershed moment. Sexual abuse behind bars is a serious human rights violation and an affront to our society’s most basic values. With the power to stop this abuse, there is no excuse for dawdling. It’s time for Attorney General Holder and President Obama to demonstrate their commitment to ending this shocking violence by codifying the national standards.

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  • mechashiva

    Thank you for writing on this topic. Rape is never justified, and these human rights abuses CAN be prevented. The public’s misconceptions about prisoner treatment (and what they deserve) need to change.

  • diegocares

    I have been raped while in holding. Even though I told them I was gay, and needed protection on this BOGUS charge. I was arrested for something that someone else did. I had verification of where I was at when that happened. I even had people with me at the time who stated the same thing. I just happen to look like their subject.  I told my lawyer about it. I was out of there 6 hours later, and when I went to court, I spoke to the Judge, and everyone in that courtroom what had happened in graphic detail, then they took action, but then again, I was violated, and it was the guards who threw me in a cell with a predator on purpose because he hated gay people. Later, I found out, his was dismissed, then charged with reckless endangerment of a prisoner, then he lost his job, his pension, and any chance of employment, and no back pay while he was suspended, and no way to get any unemployment..

    I have had several friends, some who went to jail on minor altercations, who had been raped repeatedly with guards at a door, acting as watchout men, and 2 guys who had been exposed to the HIV virus by inmates in their cells, while others watched being gang raped repeatedly for their entire sentence, and walking out of prison or county jails being infected with HIV.

    I know first hand what happens, and now is the time to STOP IT ONCE AND FOR ALL! Come on President Obama, quit being a narcissistic, teleprompter president! And the same for Attorney General Holder! Pass it, to hell with the prison companies and their backwash!

    What is wrong with our Attorney General? Just submit the report as is, and have it made law. Protect our prisoners from such abuse

  • stondor

    I’ve got a story for yall.


    It happened to one of my buddies back in the 90’s. My buddy, he has 2 kids under the age of 3. One day, some psychotic son of a gun breaks in late at night, and rapes his wife in front of their two kids and beats her half to death. It makes my stomach turn just to think about it. Any how, it took the inept justice department three years to put this man behind bars. Did it really bring justice to my friend? It goes without saying, the kids were traumatized, my buddy didn’t feel safe in his own home, and his wife was in VERY bad shape. You can bet the man who did this crime was raped in jail, rightfully so. Each time, one of his fingernails were pulled off and mailed to my buddy. He has no more fingernails. Now, I don’t want this kind of prison crap to happen to innocent people, but, regardless of what human rights criminals may have, some people deserve this crap.

  • harry834

    what system do we or should we have in place to decide which criminals “deserve” to be raped in prison? I suppose we might distinguish between innocent and guilty, but anyone in prison is (unofficially) presumed guilty until aquitted/appealed.

    Should the people who run prisons, people who get our tax money, now get the power to decide which of their inmates should be left to get raped? Should any government institution, or any institution period, have this right?

  • harry834

    DO they have that right? I know we disagree all the time on what is constitutional, but can we agree that allowing inmates to get raped is unconstitutional?

    rape as punishment…might that violate the eighth amendment?…and due process since it is not officially part of the punishment, just wardens taking it upon themselves to “inflict justice”. Where does that power lead?

  • ack

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. It’s so important that brave survivors like yourself are willing to speak out. The combination of homophobia and violence in your case is truly chilling.


    I’m glad that the guard was held accountable for his revolting behavior, and horrified that people like him are regularly placed in positions of power over others. Were there hate crime laws on the books at the time? 

  • ack

    I’m very sorry for what happened to your friend’s family. However, I just can’t agree with the concept of rape as punishment. That’s completely inhumane, and as a society we agree that cruel and unusual punishment is unacceptable. (It could be argued that rape is not unusual, but it is certainly cruel.) We ignore prison rape because it’s comfortable for us to think that bad things happen to bad people, and that this is part of that karmic balance. It’s not. No one deserves to be raped. Ever.


    Rape as a punishment is a common theme in our culture, and it doesn’t only serve to justify looking the other way when prisoners are raped. It bleeds into the creation of a rape culture, where women and men are raped because they “asked for it” in some way, like drinking or wearing certain clothes or walking alone or any of a number of other behaviors.

  • whilragig

    Rape is unacceptable in our American society; yet it continues to happen. There appear to be enough rules but not enough enforcement. As Americans it is difficult to accept that our society is one that continually looks the other way and disregards this issue. Apparently, the power structures don’t really want to rock the boat or effect change. They are vested into the way things are and have been. 


    As American citizens we haven’t stood up to making change within the prisons, we let it slide. We have an attitude of “out of sight – out of mind”. We don’t like to think about these things and we don’t think of the prisoner as an equal. We treat them differently. What we’re talking about is behavior that is the low of the low on both sides of the bars. Where is a heightened standard to live up to? Apparently, we are not showing those who are incarcerated how to do better, there is no path of improvement. These are people that have been given up on. 


    When a person is incarcerated is not the time to turn our back on them. It is time when there is need for a good example, for support to move forward in more beneficial ways. But, when all freedom is taken away and there is no caring or kindness – from anywhere – it can enrage a person even more. Pain may be inflicted in many ways, rape is just one way. I feel that if a person is incarcerated their freedom (even of movement because they can’t get away) has been taken away >> and we the people -have intrinsically taken on the responsibility for their life, it becomes our responsibility to keep them safe. We have not lived up to this responsibility.


    To begin, it might be best to overhaul the penal standards. Begin by considering the requirements for workers to work within the prisons and hire only those who have a track record of respect, honesty and integrity.

    If we have those qualities coming from the top down with examples of humane treatment and how to be supportive of all life – then there can be progress. I think it begins with valuing each and every life and doing the things it takes for a human to be humane. 


    We pay the price for all things we sweep under the rug. It is time to make change – positive change. Rape is unacceptable no matter where it happens or why it happens or to whom it happens. Hmmm, I think there’s a law…


    In the long run we want less prisons and more healthy, upright citizens. We have to do what it takes. It’s time to stop hurting each other and hurting our society. We have the opportunity to improve its rules and standards – now. Let’s make the change that’s needed!


  • grayduck

    This article is terrific. I plan to submit comments to the Department of Justice about the proposed regulations.

  • grayduck

    stondor on May 8, 2010 – 9:25am: “…some people deserve this crap.”


    Even if rape could be justified as a penalty for crime, allowing rape by other prisoners at their discretion makes no sense for two reasons. First, doing so mitigates the severity of the sentences imposed on the prison rapists. It essentially turns prison into an all-expenses-paid rape resort for those offenders. What would be the point of sending them to prison if they could commit any crime there with impunity? Another problem with using discretionary rape as a punishment is that if the rapes do not occur, the prisoners will be underpenalized for their crimes.


    But even using rape as a sentence is problematic. First, the rape of a woman could lead to a pregnancy. Such a result would be unfair to the child conceived. Second, who would perform these rapes? Would we have professional rapists to administer these rapes? Third, when would they be appropriate for a particular crime? For example, if a man rapes a woman, would we have a woman rape the man back as punishment? If a man rapes a man, would a rape of him be as damaging as it was to the original victim? Presumably not, since he himself chose to engage in such behavior.


  • grayduck

    “As Americans it is difficult to accept that our society is one that continually looks the other way and disregards this issue. Apparently, the power structures don’t really want to rock the boat or effect change. They are vested into the way things are and have been.”

    I completely agree. We now have the technology to dramatically reduce the numbers of rapes, yet few people seem interested in employing those technologies aggressively. Even anti-rape groups seem more interested in using rape to promote their social agenda than in actually stopping rapes.

  • curtisp

    Prison rape is just plain un-american and people who think it is OK should go elsewhere.  Too bad if they or someone they know was a victim of a violent crime.  It is a core american principal that we don’t practice cruel and unusual punishment.  Love it, respect it, or leave it.  This is not hard.

  • curtisp

    Another problem with rape as a punishment is how do we get justice for someone who is falsely imprisoned?  Do we allow this person to draw a name and rape a juror?  Or can they rape all of them?  Do we allow them to go after the prosecutor?  How about raping the judge?  The prison guard?  If they have no desire to rape these people what other type of revenge do they get to take?  People who support and dish out cruel and unusual punishment need to make sure they are never wrong or be willing to face the same treatment. 

  • otto117

    Prison rape occurs in the context of a completely dehumanizing prison system that starves prisoners of sex and affection, indeed, effectively emasculates them, and removes them from the civilizing influence of family. The iontentional cruelty of the prison environment in the United States exacerbates a thousand fold any tendency of a prisoner toward cruelty to others. Talk about a cycle of abuse. It doesn’t have to be that way.

    Not much prison rape occurs in Brasil. Family visits occur two or three times per week. Despite over-crowded conditions, you have a visit with your family in your cell, with your small area cordoned off by some sheets hung from the ceiling. (The prisons tolerate prisoners making these small alternations in the cells because it is simply better and more human that way.) Visits are either intimate visits, for the specific purpose of having sex, or family visits, for the purpose of socializing with your family. Your choice. Wives, girlfiends, boyfriends and your children are permitted. The visits last from around 8:30 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon. Visitors lunch in the prison, shower, nap, whatever.

    During visits (esp. intimate ones), prisoners who don’t have visitors are not permitted to enter the cell. (This is a rule of the prisoners, not the prison.) They stay outside and find something constructive to do. No swearing or rude behavior is tolerated by the prisoners during visits. When a visiting family, wife or girlfriend passes, prisoners politely avert their gazes (unless they are personally introduced to the family member) to avoid the visitor’s discomfort.

    Prison visitation not takes care of prisoners’ sexual and affectional needs. It keeps prisoners in touch with their families (indeed, many wives become pregnant while their husbands are in jail) so that they’re not reduced to being total animals 24-7. There is no shortage of men in prison (even family men) who would want to have sex with other men, but they get their sex consensually, not as a consequence of rape. There are no “bubba” jokes and the type of power rape which regularly occurs in US prisons is abhorred.

    The question is always: what kind of society do you want to live in?

    What’s wrong with America that so many Americans think prison rape is something some prisoners (the weak, the gay, or sex offenders, for example) should expect or even deserve? In my view, it’s a national sickness.