Female guards biggest source of inmate sex abuse allegations

  • April 9, 2010
  • Grits for Breakfast Blog

One excellent result from the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) is that we’re getting for the first time a more accurate picture of sexual assault behind bars that in many ways defies the usual stereotypes. A Houston Chronicle editorial this morning (“Stopping prison rape,” April 9) remarks on the results of a study authorized PREA which showed several Texas prisons led the nation in alleged sexual assaults on inmates:

Even by the standards of the Texas justice system, the number of rapes committed in our prisons is astounding. And it’s even more appalling that most of the rapists are corrections officers — the very people charged with enforcing our laws.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that of the 10 U.S. prisons with the highest rates of sexual abuse, five are in Texas. The Estelle Unit, in Huntsville, is No. 1 on that wretched list.

Nationwide, 4.5 percent of prisoners report that they’ve been sexually victimized in the last 12 months. At the Estelle Unit, it’s 15.7 percent. Assuming that Estelle is running near its capacity, that means roughly 470 people are raped there each year; many of those victims are raped more than once.

The other four Texas prisons on the list — the Clements Unit in Amarillo; the Allred Unit near Wichita Falls; the Mountain View Unit near Gatesville; and the Coffield Unit near Tennessee Colony — had rates between 9.3 percent and 13.9 percent.

Most often, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics surveys, the rapists are corrections staff. The prisoners most at risk tend to be the weakest: women, gay men, juvenile offenders, the mentally disabled, the physically small and those new to life behind bars.

In every state, it’s a crime for corrections officers to have sex with prisoners, whether it’s consensual or not. But that crime is rarely prosecuted.

Relatedly, Mike Ward at the Statesman has a blog post about a bipartisan letter from legislators asking TDCJ officials to address the issues raised in a recent report by Just Detention International.

And I’d missed last month an essay in the New York Review of Books focusing on carceral rape and in particular the TYC sex abuse cases. Notably in juvenile lockups, “Fully 80 percent of the sexual abuse reported in the study was committed not by other inmates but by staff. And surprisingly, 95 percent of the youth making such allegations said that they were victimized by female staff.” In county jails, 62% of alleged incidents involved female guards.

While it’s sexual assault by definition under the statutes, even when there’s no coercion involved, female guards having sex with male inmates isn’t the typical image that comes to mind when you hear the phrase “prison rape.” That also flies in the face of statements that the most likely victims are “women, gay men, juvenile offenders, the mentally disabled, the physically small and those new to life behind bars.” I doubt those are the inmates female guards are targeting: Stronger inmates preying on the weak and vulnerable seems like a strikingly different dynamic than what’s happening with female guards and male inmates, and will require different strategies to stop it. OTOH, relationships between inmates and female guards are far from harmless and pose potentially grave security risks.