Contact: Jesse Lerner-Kinglake
Office: 213-384-1400 ext. 113

New Federal Report Reveals Culture of Impunity in Prisons and Jails

  • January 31, 2023

Los Angeles, January 31, 2023 — Corrections staff who commit sexual abuse rarely face legal consequences, according to a study released today by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The report shows that in addition to avoiding criminal sanctions, some staff remained employed at their facility after their agency had determined they committed the abuse. The report’s findings also highlight the failure of prisons and jails nationwide to provide medical and mental health services to survivors of sexual abuse in their custody or take appropriate measures to keep them safe.

“This report lifts the curtain on the continued failure of U.S. prisons and jails to hold their staff accountable for sexual abuse,” said Linda McFarlane, Executive Director of Just Detention International. “Prison and jail staff are sexually abusing people in their care and getting away with it — even when an investigation confirms they did it. This is a textbook case of impunity, and it’s unacceptable.”

This new data is based on records gathered from state and federal prisons and local jails on their responses to reports of sexual abuse covering the three-year period from 2016-2018. Since most incarcerated survivors do not report — especially when the perpetrator is a staff member — the official records represent only a small percentage of sexual abuse in prisons and jails. This study homes in on the minority of sexual abuse allegations that are substantiated — meaning that the abuse was determined to have occurred, as opposed to being unfounded or unsubstantiated — following an investigation. Legal action is unlikely in these cases, especially when the perpetrator is on staff. The report shows that fewer than one in three sexually abusive prison staff were arrested (31.9 percent) or referred for prosecution (29.7 percent) — and that only 6.4 percent were convicted, pled guilty, sentenced, or fined.

Staff who were found to have committed sexual abuse were more likely to be disciplined by their employers than criminally sanctioned. Yet the categories of punishment listed in the report indicate that many known perpetrators in prisons and jails continued to work with incarcerated people. Among the punishments meted out were termination or nonrenewal of a contract (in 44 percent of cases of staff sexual misconduct); a reprimand or discipline (8 percent of cases); demotion, reducing of responsibilities, or suspension (4.9 percent); or a transfer to a different facility (1.7 percent).

The report also looked at how facility officials responded to incarcerated people who were sexually abused. Slightly more than a quarter of survivors of staff sexual abuse in prisons and jails (26.1 percent) received a medical exam, while more than a third received counseling (35.6 percent) — roughly the same number of survivors received no help at all (35 percent). Almost one in five people whose reports of staff sexual abuse were substantiated were placed in administrative segregation (18.6 percent) — a harmful, punitive response to speaking out that has a chilling effect on reporting sexual abuse.

“What makes these findings so bleak is that these are cases where the facility did something right,” explained McFarlane. “Officials in these cases took reports of sexual abuse seriously, conducted careful investigations, and then failed to hold abusive staff accountable or get survivors the help they deserve. It’s no surprise that incarcerated survivors don’t feel they can come forward — nor that so many staff perpetrators feel emboldened to keep abusing the people in their care. The bottom line is that prisons and jails still aren’t safe. And that won’t change until corrections officials act compassionately and responsibly when a survivor reports sexual abuse, including against one of their colleagues.”


Just Detention International is a health and human rights organization that seeks to end sexual abuse in all forms of detention.