A new report from the Justice Department shows that allegations of sexual assault in U.S. prisons are increasing—and that correctional officers commit nearly half of those assaults. From 2009 to 2011, prison administrators logged more than 8,000 reports of inmate abuse, an 11 percent rise from the department's last study covering 2007 and 2009. Prison staff was responsible for 49 percent of those cases. Despite the high proportion of allegations against prison officers, however, prosecution remains rare. Staff members can often continue working in the prison system long after they're accused. ProPublica explains: While most prison staff shown to be involved in sexual misconduct lost their jobs, fewer than half were referred for prosecution, and only 1 percent ultimately got convicted. Roughly one-third of staff caught abusing prisoners are allowed to resign before the investigation comes to a close, the report concludes, meaning there’s no public record of what exactly transpired and nothing preventing them from getting a similar job at another facility. “These findings point to a level of impunity in our prisons and jails that is simply unacceptable,” said Lovisa Stannow, Executive Director of Just Detention International, a prisoner advocacy group in California. “When corrections agencies don’t punish or choose to ignore sexual abuse committed by staff members—people who are paid by our tax dollars to keep inmates safe—they support criminal behavior.” The prisons' failure to investigate allegations of sexual abuse may be discouraging inmates from reporting violations. Other surveys that directly ask inmates about assault rather than relying on statistics provided by prison administrators show drastically higher rates of sexual abuse. One such study estimated that 80,000 inmates had experienced sexual victimization in 2011-12, which is five times the rate reported by prison administrators.
Sarah Berlin is an intern at In These Times.