United States



I've been sentenced for a D.U.I. offense. My 3rd one. When I first came to prison, I had no idea what to expect. Certainly none of this. I'm a tall white male, who unfortunately has a small amount of feminine characteristics. And very shy. These characteristics have got me raped so many times I have no more feelings physically. I have been raped by up to 5 black men and two white men at a time. I've had knifes at my head and throat. I had fought and been beat so hard that I didn't ever think I'd see straight again. One time when I refused to enter a cell, I was brutally attacked by staff and taken to segragation though I had only wanted to prevent the same and worse by not locking up with my cell mate. There is no supervision after lockdown. I was given a conduct report. I explained to the hearing officer what the issue was. He told me that off the record, He suggests I find a man I would/could willingly have sex with to prevent these things from happening. I've requested protective custody only to be denied. It is not available here. He also said there was no where to run to, and it would be best for me to accept things . . . . I probably have AIDS now. I have great difficulty raising food to my mouth from shaking after nightmares or thinking to hard on all this . . . . I've laid down without physical fight to be sodomized. To prevent so much damage in struggles, ripping and tearing. Though in not fighting, it caused my heart and spirit to be raped as well. Something I don't know if I'll ever forgive myself for. (1)

The letter excerpted above was one of the first to reach Human Rights Watch in response to a small announcement posted in Prison Legal News and Prison Life Magazine, two publications with a wide audience in U.S. prisons. Having been alerted to the problem of prisoner-on-prisoner rape in the United States by the work of activists like Stephen Donaldson of the organization Stop Prisoner Rape, we had decided to conduct exploratory research into the topic and had put a call out to prisoners for information. The resulting deluge of letters--many of which included compelling firsthand descriptions such as this--convinced us that the issue merited urgent attention. Rape, by prisoners' accounts, was no aberrational occurrence; instead it was a deeply-rooted, systemic problem. It was also a problem that prison authorities were doing little to address.

The present report--the product of three years of research and well over a thousand inmate letters--describes the complex dynamics of male prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse in the United States. The report is an effort to explain why and how such abuse occurs, who commits it and who falls victim to it, what are its effects, both physical and psychological, how are prison authorities coping with it and, most importantly, what reforms can be instituted to better prevent it from occurring.

The Scope of this Report

This report is limited in scope to male prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse in the United States. It does not cover women prisoners, nor does it cover the sexual abuse of male prisoners by their jailers. Human Rights Watch investigated the problem of custodial sexual misconduct in U.S. women's prisons in two previous reports and the issue has been a continuing focus of our U.S. advocacy efforts. (2) As to custodial sexual misconduct against male prisoners, we decided not to include that topic within the scope of this report even though some prisoners who claimed to have been subject to such abuse did contact us. An initial review of the topic convinced us that it involved myriad issues that were distinct from the topic at hand, which is complicated enough in itself.

Even though the notices that Human Rights Watch circulated to announce our research on prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse were written in gender-neutral language, we received no information from women prisoners regarding the problem. As prison experts are well aware, penal facilities for men and women tend to differ in important respects. If the problem of prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse exists in women's institutions--a possibility we do not exclude--it is likely to take somewhat different forms than in men's prisons.(3)

For several reasons, the primary focus of this report is on sexual abuse in prisons, rather than jails.(4) Most importantly, all of our information save a handful of letters came from prison as opposed to jail inmates. Many of these prisoners did, however, describe sexual abuses they had suffered when previously held in jails, allowing us to gather some information on the topic. Nonetheless, the bulk of our prisoner testimonies and documentation--and all of the information we collected from state authorities--pertain specifically to prisons. Already, with fifty separate state prison jurisdictions in the United States, the task of collecting official information was difficult; obtaining such information from the many thousands of local authorities responsible for city and county jails would have been infinitely more so. Yet we should emphasize that our lack of specific research on jails should be not interpreted as suggesting that the problem does not occur there. Although little research has been done on sexual assault in jails, the few commentators who have examined the topic have found the abuse to be similarly or even more prevalent there.(5)

It is evident to Human Rights Watch, even without having completed exhaustive research into the jail context, that the problems we describe with regard to prisons generally hold true for jails as well. This conclusion derives from the fact that most of the risk factors leading to rape exist in prisons and jails alike. We therefore believe that our recommendations for reform are largely applicable in the jail context, and we urge jail authorities to pay increased attention to the issue of prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse.

While this report does not deal specifically with juvenile institutions, we note that previous research, while extremely scanty, suggests that inmate-on-inmate sexual abuse may be even more common in juvenile institutions than it is in facilities for adults.(6) Indeed, a case filed recently by the U.S. Justice Department in federal court to challenge conditions in a Louisiana juvenile institution includes serious allegations of inmate-on-inmate rape.(7)

Finally, our choice of U.S. prisons as the subject of this research, over prisons elsewhere in the world, in no way indicates that we believe the problem to be unique to the United States. On the contrary, our international prison research convinces us that prisoner-on-prisoner rape is of serious concern around the world. We note that several publications on human rights or prison conditions in other countries have touched on or explored the topic, as have past Human Rights Watch prison reports.(8) Interestingly, researchers outside of the United States have reached many of the same conclusions as researchers here, suggesting that specific cultural variables are not determinative with regard to rape in prison.(9)


The report is primarily based on information collected from over 200 prisoners spread among thirty-seven states. The majority of these inmates have been raped or otherwise sexually abused while in prison, and were therefore able to give firsthand accounts of the problem. Numerous inmates who were not subject to sexual abuse also provided their views on the topic, including information about sexual assaults that they had witnessed. A very small number of inmates who had themselves participated in rape also contributed their perspectives. Much of the information was received via written correspondence, although Human Rights Watch representatives spoke by telephone with a number of prisoners, and personally interviewed twenty-six of them. Prisoner testimonies were supplemented by documentary materials such as written grievances, court papers, letters, and medical records.

Prisoners were contacted using several different methods. Human Rights Watch posted announcements in a number of publications and leaflets that reach prisoners--including Prison Legal News, Prison Life Magazine (which has since ceased publication), and Florida Prison Legal Perspectives--informing them that we were conducting research on the topic of prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse and that we welcomed their information. Several organizations that work with prisoners, including Stop Prisoner Rape, put us in contact with additional inmates.

The prisoners who collaborated in our efforts were thus a largely self-selected group, not a random sampling. Previous researchers have conducted quantitative studies using statistically valid techniques in certain U.S. prisons -- most recently, in 1998 in seven midwestern state prison systems -- but, given that there are some two million prisoners in the United States, this would be difficult to achieve on a national scale. The research on which the present report was based was thus qualitative in nature: it sought to identify systemic weaknesses rather than to quantify actual cases of abuse. The result, we believe, sketches the outlines of a national problem, bridging the gap between academic research on the topic and the more anecdotal writings that occasionally appear in the popular press.

The prisoners with whom Human Rights Watch was in contact, we should emphasize, did not simply serve as a source of case material. Rather, their comments and insights--based on firsthand knowledge and close observation--inform every page of the report.

Besides prisoners, we also obtained valuable information from prison officials, prison experts, lawyers who represent prisoners, prisoners rights organizations, and prisoners' relatives. Written materials including academic studies, books, and articles from the popular press supplemented these sources. In addition, Human Rights Watch conducted an extensive review of the case law relevant to prison rape in the United States.

1. Letter from A.H. to Human Rights Watch, August 30, 1996. In this excerpt, as in other excerpts from prisoners' letters included in this report, the author's idiosyncracies of spelling and grammar have been retained. In addition, prisoners' names and other identifying facts have been withheld to protect their privacy.

2. See Human Rights Watch, All Too Familiar: Sexual Abuse of Women in U.S. State Prisons (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1996); Human Rights Watch, "United States--Nowhere to Hide: Retaliation Against Women in Michigan State Prisons," A Human Rights Watch Short Report, vol. 10, no. 2, September 1998.

3. There is little published research on the topic of female prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse. A 1996 study that covered both men and women prisoners found a much lower rate of coerced sex among women than men. See Cindy Struckman-Johnson et al., "Sexual Coercion Reported by Men and Women in Prison," Journal of Sex Research, vol. 33, no. 1 (1996), p. 75. The most recent published examination of the topic describes instances of sexual abuse inflicted on or witnessed by a woman who spent five years in prison. It finds sexual pressuring and harassment among women prisoners to be more common than actual sexual assault. See Leanne Fiftal Alarid, "Sexual Assault and Coercion among Incarcerated Women Prisoners: Excerpts from Prison Letters," The Prison Journal, vol. 80, no. 4 (2000), p. 391.

4. Prisons, which generally hold prisoners after their conviction, are operated by state and federal authorities; jails, which generally hold prisoners who are awaiting trial or who have received sentences of less than one year, are operated by local (county and city) authorities. For a more comprehensive description of the structure of incarceration in the United States, see the Background chapter.

5. See Alan J. Davis, "Sexual Assaults in the Philadelphia Prison System and Sheriff's Vans," Transaction, vol. 6, no. 2 (December 1968), pp. 8-16 (concluding that some 3 percent of men who "passed through" the Philadelphia jails were sexually assaulted); Wilbert Rideau, "The Sexual Jungle," in Wilbert Rideau and Ron Wikberg, eds, Life Sentences: Rage and Survival Behind Bars (New York: Times Books, 1992), pp. 90-91; see also Robert A. Martin, "Gang-Rape in D.C. Jail," in Pamela Portwood et al., eds., Rebirth of Power: Overcoming the Effects of Sexual Abuse Through the Experiences of Others (Racine, Wisconsin: Mother Courage Press, 1987); Gregory v. Shelby, 220 F. 3d 433 (6th Cir. 2000) (jail inmate who died as a result of injuries sustained during violent sexual abuse by another inmate). But see Daniel Lockwood, Prison Sexual Violence (New York: Elsevier, 1980), p. 25, who found much less sexual aggression among inmates in New York jails than in state prisons.

6. See Clemens Bartollas, Stuart J. Miller, and Simon Dinitz, "The 'Booty Bandit': A Social Role in a Juvenile Institution," Journal of Homosexuality, vol. 1, no. 2 (1974), p. 203.

7. "Memorandum in Support of the United States' Motion for a Preliminary Injunction Regarding Conditions of Confinement at the Jena Juvenile Justice Center," United States v. Louisiana, Civil No. 98-947-B-1, filed March 30, 2000.

8. A Kenyan human rights group, for example, included the following description in its report on prisons in that country:

    [O]ne respondent reported an incident in which nine male juveniles were so badly sodomised by adult prisoners that their rectums protruded. . . . Similarly it was reported that first offenders in Machakos prison are preyed upon by older inmates who will even resort to rape if the younger inmates refuse to submit. Other young inmates engage in homosexual relations with older inmates in exchange for protection from the attentions of other prisoners.

Kenya Human Rights Commission, A Death Sentence: Prison Conditions in Kenya (Nairobi: Kenya Human Rights Commission, 1996), pp. 76-77. See also Moscow Center for Prison Reform, In Search of a Solution: Crime Criminal Policy and Prison Facilities in the Former Soviet Union (Moscow: Human Rights Publishers, 1996), p. 12; Observatoire international des prisons, Le guide du prisonnier (Paris: Les Editions Ouvrières, 1996), p. 139.

The most comprehensive analyses we have found of prisoner-on-prisoner rape outside of the United States are included in Daniel Welzer-Lang et al., Sexualités et violences en prison (Lyon: Aleas Editeur, 1996) (French prisons), and David Heilpern, Fear or Favour--Sexual Assault on Young Prisoners (New South Wales: Southern Cross University Press, 1998) (concluding that one in four male prisoners aged 18-25 is sexually assaulted in prisons in New South Wales, Australia). Surprisingly, a recent British study of inmate victimization made no reference to the issue. See Ian O'Donnell and Kimmett Edgar, Bullying in Prisons (Oxford: Centre for Criminological Research, University of Oxford, 1998).

Previous Human Rights Watch prison reports touching on the problem of rape include: Human Rights Watch, Behind Bars in Brazil (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1998), pp. 117-18; Human Rights Watch/Americas (now the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch), Punishment Before Trial: Prison Conditions in Venezuela (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1997), pp. 54-55; Africa Watch (now the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch), Prison Conditions in South Africa (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1994), p. 46; Helsinki Watch (now the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch), Prison Conditions in Czechoslovakia (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1989), pp. 31-33.

9. See, for example, Heilpern, Fear or Favour (finding that gay prisoners are disproportionately subject to rape).

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