Contact: Lovisa Stannow

Reports of Sexual Abuse in Detention Triple: Investigators Continue to Let Prisoners Down

  • July 25, 2018

Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., July 25, 2018 — A new Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) report, released today, shows that reports of sexual abuse in detention nearly tripled between 2011 and 2015. In 2011, corrections administrators recorded 8,768 inmate reports of sexual victimization, compared to 24,661 in 2015. The study, titled Sexual Victimization Reported by Adult Correctional Authorities, 2012-15, provides a first glimpse into changes stimulated by the 2012 release of national standards mandated by the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA).

“Based on Just Detention International’s extensive work inside prisons and jails, we consider these findings a clear sign that prisoners are starting to trust the system, rather than an indication that sexual abuse in detention is skyrocketing. That’s a good thing,” explained Lovisa Stannow, JDI’s Executive Director. “At the same time, today’s report exposes an appalling failure of corrections investigators to protect survivors and hold perpetrators of prisoner rape accountable.”

The BJS report shows that more than half (51.2 percent) of all reports of inmate-on-inmate sexual abuse and nearly half (44.9 percent) of all reports of staff-on-inmate sexual abuse were unsubstantiated — meaning that the investigations failed to determine whether or not the abuse had occurred. Only 8 percent of all reports were substantiated.

“We know that most prisoner rape survivors are too afraid to file a report. It is simply unacceptable that those who do take the risk are let down, once again, by shoddy investigations,” said Stannow.

In JDI’s experience working inside detention facilities, a number of common investigative failures often lead to sexual abuse reports being closed as unsubstantiated, or even unfounded. Too often, front-line custody staff inappropriately handle such reports themselves rather than calling in trained sexual abuse investigators. Investigators also commonly interview sexual abuse survivors with other prison staff in the room, such as associate wardens, which has a dramatic chilling effect on survivors’ ability to speak openly, especially if the perpetrator is a staff member.

“Another key barrier to solid sexual abuse investigations is a pervasive belief among staff that prisoners are liars, despite the reality that there is very little for prisoners to gain by fabricating stories of sexual abuse,” said Stannow.

Sexual abuse, in the community and in detention, is a vastly underreported crime. Today’s report examines only those cases that inmates disclosed to staff, which is the tip of the iceberg. Previous BJS reports, based on national, anonymous inmate surveys, found that 200,000 people were sexually abused in detention in a one-year period.

“Corrections officials must uphold their responsibility to keep the people in their custody safe — and they must be diligent in investigating all sexual abuse allegations,” said Stannow. “Today’s report shows clearly that we have a long way to go before such reports are taken seriously.”


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