The forgotten voices of #metoo: Prison rape in America – perpetrated by both inmates and staff – remains pervasive and under-reported 15 years after the passage of a law intended to end crisis

  • Valerie Bauman
  • December 10, 2018
  • The Daily Mail

It started the first night Joe Booth was placed with his new cellmate at the Richard Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego.

‘He grabbed my ankle and pulled me off the bed … He had a weapon that was manufactured out of a piece of metal that he had gotten,’ Booth told ‘I had struggled, but when he put that next to my throat – that was the end of my fight.’

He was repeatedly and violently raped over four days by his cellmate, who was serving a 72-year sentence for raping, sodomizing and transmitting HIV or AIDS to a teenage girl. According to a federal lawsuit he filed against the prison warden, Booth sought help from seven different staff members, including a counselor.

None intervened on his behalf.

‘They literally said, “We are not marriage counselors, you two work it out,”‘ Booth said.

It was 2009 – six years after the passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act and three years before the new guidelines under that law would be published and mandated in prisons, jails and juvenile facilities across the country.

On a weekly basis, Booth, now 50, said he still thinks about the torture he endured at the hands of another inmate. At his darkest moments in the prison he thought of suicide.

‘I was seriously trying to figure out some kind of way that I could just end it all,’ he said. ‘I just didn’t want to hurt anymore. I just didn’t want to be alive.’

While Booth had HIV before the sexual assault, he said the physical and emotional trauma of the experience ravaged his health, causing the disease to progress to full-blown AIDS.

A spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation provided a statement confirming that the agency reached a $30,000 settlement with Booth for his ordeal, but declined to make officials available for an interview with

While Booth asked for help and repeatedly tried to report his sexual assault, many more victims are too afraid to report their rapes.

Jan Lastocy, 57, told that she didn’t think anyone would believe that she had been raped by a Michigan prison guard in 1998 and, at the time, feared prison staff would retaliate against her if she spoke out.

‘Part of the problem is that when we were transferred in, the warden came out and gave her little speech and she said if it ever came down to the word of the guard verses the word of an inmate she would always go with the guard,’ Lastocy said. ‘So there was that in the back of my mind: ‘If I tell, who’s going to believe me? I’m just a prisoner.’

Broad changes were introduced to protect prisoners under the Prison Rape Elimination Act 

Changes that later took place under PREA – signed into law 15 years ago by former President George W. Bush – could have prevented or limited the abuse that Booth and Lastocy endured.

The law has provisions that would have required Booth – an openly gay inmate – to be housed safely and not with a convicted rapist who prison officials knew had just attacked a former cellmate seven days prior to the two men being locked in a room together.

It also would have required training that would have instructed prison guards to take complaints of sexual assault seriously and to act immediately upon receiving a report of rape, said Brenda V. Smith, a law professor at American University in Washington D.C. and one of nine members on the federal commission that wrote the language in PREA. California prison officials did not say whether staff were trained on handling sexual assault prior to PREA’s implementation.

‘Someone should not have to be raped in custody in order for an agency to get what they are supposed to do,’ Smith told

Even in the era of ‘me too’ accountability on sexual assault, rape in prison remains a joke in America and something that many people assume is an inevitable part of prison life, she said.

‘I think that people don’t care about people being raped (in prison) because they can’t see themselves as a prisoner,’ Smith said. ‘As long as it doesn’t affect us, or we think it doesn’t affect us, then it’s just not something that we have to care about.’

‘I think it says that we’re not very brave,’ she added. ‘I think it says that there is a part of us as people that really races to judgment and to vengeance.’

The new standards under PREA mandated that data on rapes in America’s prisons and jails must be tracked and reported to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. It also requires inmate education, medical and mental health care for victims, and investigations of each allegation – all of which experts say may have encouraged victims and increased their willingness to report sexual abuse.

Experts say persuading prisoners to come forward is a huge obstacle to ending prison rape, whether the perpetrator was a fellow inmate or an employee of the jail or prison.

The challenge of measuring how often people are raped in America’s prison system 

American prisons and jails were the site of 24,661 formal allegations of sexual assault in 2015, the most recent period for which data is available through the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

That number represents the most accurate measure of official prison rape and assault claims ever recorded in the U.S., and was reached after new national standards were put in place under PREA to better prevent, detect and respond to such attacks.

It’s also nearly triple the 8,768 allegations reported nationwide in 2011.

‘More people felt comfortable coming forward, which means correctional institutions are doing a better job of making people feel safe,’ said Jesse Lerner-Kinglake, a spokesman for Just Detention International, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that seeks to end prison rape worldwide.  

‘They’re beginning to have faith in the system and the reporting mechanisms that are available to them,’ he told ‘And this is the first measure of that after the release of the PREA standards, which mandate safer ways for prisoners to report.’

In 2015, a total of 1,473 allegations were formally substantiated through completed investigations, while 2,733 remained under investigation. Additionally, 10,142 were determined to be unfounded, while 10,313 were unsubstantiated (cases with insufficient evidence to prove either way).

More than half (58 percent) of the allegations in 2015 were claims that prison staff victimized inmates, while 42 percent were incidences where accusations were leveled against fellow inmates.

Prisoner advocates say the actual proportion of legitimate claims is likely much higher than the 8 percent that were substantiated – which by themselves represent a 63 percent increase compared to the 902 recorded in 2011.

‘The vast majority of people who are assaulted do not report because retaliation is rampant and there is shame involved … people are afraid for their lives,’ Lerner-Kinglake said.

The reasons prison rape survivors are afraid to report sexual assault to the authorities

Prisoners who report rape can be branded as ‘snitches’ by other inmates and then singled out for violence. It can also make a prisoner more sexually vulnerable for others to know that he or she was raped.

‘When someone has been sexually assaulted they have often been labeled as fair game’ Lerner-Kinglake said. ‘We know that most people who are sexually abused in detention are abused again and again and again. It is often hopeless.’

In addition, many prisoners who have been raped or are deemed vulnerable to sexual assault are placed in solitary confinement for their own safety. In many cases, this means giving up the few privileges that prisoners have access to, including visits from family and time outside of their cell.

For all those reasons, experts argue that a separate set of data provides a more accurate measure of rape in U.S. prisons – a survey of inmates as they leave the prison allows them to anonymously provide the government with details on any assaults they have experienced.

The most recent survey was published in 2013 using data from 2011 and 2012. According to that data, an estimated 80,600 prison and jail inmates were sexually victimized.

Still, experts argue those numbers still reflect under-reporting, as they represent just 4 percent of all prison inmates and 3.2 percent of all jail inmates in America.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics used the survey data to rank the prisons, jails and juvenile facilities that have the highest incidence of sexual assault in the country.

When it comes to inmate-on-inmate rape, the Mabel Bassett Correctional Center, a female facility in McCloud, Oklahoma, was the worst in the nation, with a rate of 15.3 percent.

For staff-on-inmate assault, Denver Women’s Correctional Facility in Colorado was the worst with a rate of 10.7 percent.

The most vulnerable inmates – and what they do to avoid getting raped in prison 

In male prisons, young, slight men are considered the most vulnerable, as are people identifying as LGBTQ or those suffering from mental illness, said Deborah LaBelle, an Ann Arbor-based attorney. LaBelle is leading a class action lawsuit against the Michigan Department of Corrections on behalf of more than 900 inmates age 13-18 who were sexually assaulted by other prisoners and staff while in detention.

‘Youth are 5-8 times more likely to be raped than adults,’ she told

Before PREA, many youthful offenders were housed with adult inmates, putting them at greater risk for abuse. In 2013 (following PREA’s mandate) the Michigan agency changed its policy to start segregating teens from adult prisoners.

Nationwide, roughly 10 percent report of youth housed in juvenile facilities report being sexually victimized by either fellow inmates or staff, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Meanwhile, in female prisons, anyone can be vulnerable when it comes to staff-on-inmate assault.

Lastocy, of Belmont, Michigan, learned that first hand when she spent nine months in prison in 1998 for attempting to embezzle $200 from her employer.

For seven of those months she was raped several times a week by a prison guard who kept her silent by threatening to write her up – known as ‘catching a ticket’ – which could have extended her time in prison.

‘He liked to take out his pen and click it and talk about the amount of power he had in that pen,’ Lastocy told

Her rapist knew that and exploited her fear.

‘When I said something about, “You know this is rape, you know this is wrong,” he said, “Who do you think they’re going to believe, you or me?”‘ Lastocy said. ‘If I hesitated, he would get his pen out and I knew he was going to write me a ticket and getting a ticket was going to stop me from going home … I realized, if I had to do whatever he wanted for those seven months that’s what I had to do. And so that’s what I did.’

Her rapist was later held accountable after another inmate was able to preserve DNA evidence of a sexual assault. Lastocy was already out of prison by the time officials started asking other former and current inmates if they had also been victimized.

He ‘ruined five women’s lives but only did four years,’ Lastocy said.

Booth and Lastocy said the hardest part was not being believed.

‘If I had been raped on the outside, there would have been services available to me, there would have been no doubt that it had happened to me,’ Lastocy said. ‘I would have been the victim. Instead when it happens to you as a prisoner you’re treated totally different.’

While many prisoners accept that they have no recourse to avoid or stop sexual assault in prison, many others join gangs or engage in a sexual relationship with one inmate in order to gain protection from being raped by many inmates, Lerner-Kinglake said.

‘We have heard from prisoners who are forced to pair up with another prisoner for protection,’ he said. ‘This is something that corrections staff have historically not been good at identifying, the relationships that appear consensual but actually are not. A vulnerable prisoner will enter into partnerships because he felt he had no other choice.’

Problems with sexual assault persist in U.S. prisons 15 years after PREA was signed into law 

Despite the strides made under PREA, much remains to be done to end rape in prison.

As evidence, Smith points to the seven employees at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in New Jersey who have been accused of sexually assaulting prisoners since 2015 – after PREA was implemented. One pleaded guilty to sexual assault and several other charges, while three others pleaded guilty to official misconduct related to sexual contact with inmates. Additional charges are still pending against three men, according to the Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office.

The issue came before the New Jersey state Legislature, where prison employees testified that they were given minimal training on PREA.

Since then, major reforms have been proposed, with five bills passing the New Jersey state Senate and awaiting a vote in the Assembly. The measures would lead to a number of changes, including: mandated staff training on sexual abuse; banning of cross-gender inmate searches; and new oversight by the State Office of Victim-Witness Advocacy to ensure the rights of inmates who are victimized.

Overall, the persistence of prison rape points to a fundamental issue with the culture in prisons and among employees, Lerner-Kinglake said. While PREA has brought some change, it will take longer for the institutions that house inmates to shift that culture in a meaningful way.

‘For so long, the toxic culture of prisons and jails has really allowed sexual violence to flourish,’ Lerner-Kinglake said. ‘And (it can’t be fixed) until that is part of any PREA implementation; what we’re talking about is the deep cultural change.’

The problem of post-PREA sexual assault is not unique to Edna Mahan.

In January, a former corrections officer at the federal Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn was sentenced to life in prison after he was found guilty of sexual abuse and deprivation of an inmate’s civil rights, among other charges.

Last month, a corrections officer at the Montana Women’s Prison sued his supervisor in federal court for retaliation after the officer attempted to report the supervisor’s alleged sexual misconduct with inmates.

Multiple female prisoners at Penobscot County Jail in Bangor, Maine have accused a prison guard of sexual harassment, including showing them naked pictures of himself and forcing them to touch his genitals, according to the Bangor Daily News. In one case, a former inmate claims the unwanted sexual attention continued after she was released.

A former prisoner at Chillicothe Correctional Center in Missouri has claimed that a prison guard raped her more than 20 times – and that when she confided in a mental health counselor for help he responded by sexually assaulting her, too, according to a federal lawsuit the woman filed earlier this year. Two other women have since filed similar lawsuits against the same guard.

What can be done to enhance PREA and better protect inmates from sexual assault

‘PREA standards are minimum standards,’ Smith said in testimony before the New Jersey Legislature earlier this year. ‘In other words, they are the floor not the ceiling. States can and should do what is necessary to provide a safe environment where people in custody are not at risk for sexual victimization by staff, other prisoners, volunteers or the public.’

Smith told that there is more that can be done to strengthen the standards that PREA has established. For instance, she would like to see more policies addressing sexual health issues like HIV, AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

In addition, Smith said legislation could be crafted to better protect immigrants being held in detention from sexual assault, as well as inmates who have been released but are under the supervision of parole or probation officers.

LaBelle said she would like to see PREA have some ‘teeth’ added – in other words, consequences (for example, a reduction in federal funding) for facilities and states that are found to be non-compliant.

‘There’s not a lot of oversight. If there’s no penalty and no oversight, it’s hard to keep the spirit and intent of (PREA) going,’ she said. ‘Part of the problem is that there has to be a significant cultural shift in terms of how people who are incarcerated are perceived. These are human beings.’

Originally posted here