Women and Sexual Abuse in Prison

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The March 11, 2010 edition of the New York Review of Books contains poweful essay by David Kaiser (Chairperson, Just Detention International) and Lovisa Sannow (Executive Director, Just Detention International).   In “The Rape of American Prisoners,” Kaiser and Sannow detail a significant “crisis of sexual abuse” in juvenile detention in the U.S.   The authors rely on a report by the Texas Youth Commission, Office of the General Counsel; a report by the Texas Department of Public Safety, Texas Ranger Division; the Bureau of Justice Statistics study of Sexual Victimization in Juvenlie Facilities Reported by Youth, 2008-2009; and other works.

The statistics are staggering.   Kaiser and Sannow explain the importance and implication of the studies, as well as their deficiencies and strengths.   In describing one of the findings of the Bureau of Justice Statistics report (available here) the authors note:

Nearly 62 percent of all reported incidents of staff sexual misconduct involved female staff and male inmates. Female staff were involved in 48 percent of staff-on-inmate abuse in which the inmates were unwilling participants. The rates at which female staff seem to abuse male inmates, in jails and in juvenile detention, clearly warrant further study. Of the women in jail, 3.7 percent reported inmate-on-inmate sexual abuse; 1.3 percent of men did. Does this mean that women are more likely to abuse each other behind bars than men, or that they’re more willing to admit abuse? We don’t know:but if they’re simply more willing to admit abuse, then the BJS findings on men may have to be multiplied dramatically.

I was astounded at the rate of reported sexual abuse of male inmates by female staff members.   It illustrates that in some circumstances, women use sexual violence  as a form of domination and power over men in a way that is not so different from what men do to women.   The authors point out that it is difficult to know why female inmates are more likely than their male counterparts to be sexually abused by another inmate of the same sex.   It may be that women are more abusive of each other than men are.  

-Bridget Crawford

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One Response to Women and Sexual Abuse in Prison

  1. fanniesroom says:

    These sorts of reversals of the standard victim-perpetrator gender narrative are always interesting.

    On the one hand, they seem to suggest that there is just something inherent in human nature that induces people to behave violently toward those they have power over. But then again, women also often have to adopt stereotypically masculine traits in order to be successful in the public sphere. That they would adopt both “good” and “bad” masculine traits shouldn’t come as a surprise. There seems to be a lot of room for conflating nature/nurture to suit practically any argument.

    Anyway, I think it’s also worth noting:

    “Overall, 91% of youth in these facilities were male; 9% were female.”

    In light of the fact that there are far more males and than females in these institutions, I would be incredibly disturbed if staff nonetheless abused female inmates at higher rates than males. As it stands, females are still disproportionately abused as compared to male inmates.

    (Although, of course, it’s unfortunate whether males or females are abused, if I have to state the obvious).

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