Sexual coercion reported by women in three Midwestern prisons.
The sexual coercion of women in prison, defined here as the experience, of being pressured or coerced into unwanted sexual contact while incarcerated, has been described as one of America's "most open secrets" (Bell et al., 1999). According to several legal scholars, women who are incarcerated in American prisons face extensive problems with sexual harassment, molestation during strip searches, coercive sexual fondling, and pressured and forced sexual intercourse, most likely perpetrated by prison staff. This information has been revealed in an increasing number of court cases in which inmates have sued prisons for sexual exploitation (Bell et al., 1999; Springfield, 2000). Human rights groups have recently launched investigations of this problem. Human Rights Watch (1996) documented numerous cases of sexual abuse of imprisoned women by male correctional officers (custodial sexual abuse) in 11 state prison systems. A report by Amnesty International (1999) listed documented cases of custodial sexual misconduct for every state.
Although sexual coercion of women in prison is increasingly recognized as a serious social issue, the topic has received-scant attention from social and sex scientists (Kunselman, Tewksbury, Dumond, & Dumond, 2002). A modest number of studies have been conducted on coercive sex in prison, but most have focused on male victims (Hensley, Struckman-Johnson, & Eigenberg, 2000). Between 1960 and 1990, there were about a dozen studies conducted in men's prisons (see Dumond, 1992), but we could find only two that included female inmates. In one early work, Kassebaum (1972) commented that many women in prison were vulnerable to sexual exploitation by prison staff and other female inmates. He described an incident in which a 16-year-old girl was beaten by five other inmates for refusing sexual advances. Bartollas and Sieverdes (1983) found that 9.1% of 561 adolescent offenders in six coeducational corrections facilities for juveniles had been sexually victimized, a measure based upon inmate attitudes and staff observation of "sex games". Victimization rates for males and females were said to be equal, although the number of participants was not provided. The authors noted that one female juvenile was raped.
It was not until the mid-1990s that this topic was investigated in depth by social scientists. Baro (1997) wrote about the chronic problems of custodial sexual abuse in a small women's prison facility (population of 45 - 50) in Hawaii. As a participant observer working at the prison, Baro interviewed female inmates and collected court and prison records of abusive practices. She found that between 1982 and 1994, Hawaii had 38 officially acknowledged cases of custodial sexual abuse. Thirty of the cases involved men and eight presumably involved female perpetrators. Alleged abuses included forced intercourse, unwanted pregnancies, and even service as prostitutes in a hotel near the prison. Baro concluded that many female inmates, vulnerable due to past histories of sexual abuse and drug addiction, were easy targets for male prison staff.
Struckman-Johnson, Struckman-Johnson, Rucker, Bumby, and Donaldson (1996) surveyed a small women's facility (population of 90) and found that 3 of 42 (7%) respondents had been sexually coerced. Two victims had been sexually fondled (one by a group of staff and one by a female inmate) and one had been groped by a group of inmates. The authors found much higher coercion rates in three men's facilities that were surveyed (16% to 22%). The lower rate for women, they speculated, reflected the smaller size of the women's facility, the less violent criminal history of female inmates, or perhaps women's general disinclination to initiate sexual coercion. One other study that assessed prevalence of sexual assault in adult female prisons was conducted by correctional and health agencies in New South Wales (Butler, 1997). The survey involved an intensive interview of 132 female inmates, or 40% of the total female population. Only 2 females (2%) reported engaging in non-consensual sex while in prison. However, 23 women (17%) reported awareness of sexual assaults occurring in prison in the previous 12 months.
More recently, Alarid (2000) published a qualitative analysis of one female inmate's observations and experiences of sexual assault over a 5-year period of incarceration. Although the study did not provide rates of sexual coercion, it suggested that female inmates regularly encountered sexual pressure in their daily interactions with other female inmates. The inmate observer gave an account of her own violent rape by other female inmates. Alarid wrote that rapes were the least common form of sexual behavior. When they occurred, they generally involved multiple female perpetrators who were seemingly expressing anger or resentment toward another inmate. Greer (2000) interviewed 35 female inmates in a Midwestern prison about their interpersonal and sexual relationships. Although sexual assault was not the topic of the interviews, inmates reported that most of the sexual interactions among inmates were brought about by game playing and economic manipulation.
This spare literature stands in contrast to the hundreds of studies conducted on sexual coercion of women in campus and community settings (see Muehlenhard, Harney, & Jones, 1992). Why have social and sex scientists neglected this provocative and important issue for women in prison? One explanation is that there is a long-held belief that female inmates do not coerce each other into sexual contact. Several early studies of women's prisons (e.g., Selling, 1931) suggested that women in prison met their needs for intimacy and sexuality by forming make-believe families with other inmates. Thus, it has been argued, there was no need for force or subjugation to occur (Hensley, 1999). Tewksbury and West (2000) posited that the sexuality of female offenders has been studied less than male offenders because women are generally considered less sexual than men are.
Baro (1997) wrote that social science scholars have abandoned the study of sexual abuse of women in prison, perhaps because they believe that it is an isolated phenomenon and not suitable as a topic. She also charged that prejudice is part of the problem. According to Baro, women in prison are viewed as "bad girls" because of their crime backgrounds and probable connections to prostitution. Because they have presumably granted sexual access to men in the past, they are perceived as willing to consent to sex in general. Therefore, female inmates who complain of sexual abuse lack credibility and are denied legitimate victim status.
A major hindrance to research has been the difficulty in gaining access to inmate participants, male or female (Struckman-Johnson et al., 1996). Traditionally, prison administrations have been reluctant to allow research on coercive sexuality (Alarid, 2000; Ibrahim, 1974). Baro (1997) adds that incidents of custodial sexual abuse are typically buried deep in the personnel files. Prison administrations may discourage research because discovery of sexual assault cases may damage their reputations or may cause legislative bodies to demand expensive and impractical reforms. Obstacles may also be raised by community and prison Internal Review Boards who are wary of sex research.
Despite the many barriers, we believe there is much to be gained from research on this topic. Foremost, it would expand our knowledge of the influence of environmental and social variables on sexual aggression. In campus and community settings, sexual coercion typically involves a female victim and a male perpetrator who is known by and possibly in a relationship with the victim. Reports of sexual coercion of women by other women in the community are rare (Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, & Michaels, 1994). These dynamics may differ when a cohort of women is forced to live in close proximity in an institutional setting under the near total authority of a small number of supervisors. One can speculate that these unique conditions foster same-sex sexual coercion, as well as sexual exploitation by persons in authority positions.
There is also a compelling humanitarian justification for this research. Given that the female prisoner population in the U.S. has more than doubled since 1990 and stood at over 9,600 in the year 2000 (Beck & Harrison, 2001), the number of incarcerated women at risk for sexual coercion may be substantial. Prevention and protection efforts will be enhanced to the extent that researchers can describe the dimensions of the problem. Therefore, the present study was undertaken to provide descriptive information about sexual coercion of women in prison.
Our primary purpose was to estimate the incidence of sexual coercion of women in prison. In our review of the legal, journalistic, and social scientific literature, we could find few estimates of the prevalence of sexual coercion among adult female inmate populations. While the level of sexual abuse in prison has been described as "rampant" (Bell et al., 1999), and "extensive" (Springfield, 2000), there are almost no data on how many women are affected. The 7% sexual coercion rate found by Struckman-Johnson et al. (1996) is occasionally cited, but this rate was based on only one small women's facility.
Prison records of sexual coercion rates are also rare. Many corrections agencies do not keep records or are reluctant to publish them (Baro, 1997). For example, in a recent survey by the National Institute of Corrections (2000), only 36 of 54 state and federal departments of corrections (DOCs) were willing or able to provide data on substantiated incidents of sexual misconduct involving prison staff and female inmates for 1998. Of the 36 DOCs, 14 reported no incidents, 17 had between one and five incidents, and 5 reported more than five cases. These numbers suggest that sexual coercion rates are low. However, experts caution that statistics released by prison authorities may be serious underestimates because of the difficulties female inmates have in reporting and substantiating incidents (Baro, 1997; Springfield, 2000).
Therefore, we planned to use anonymous self-reports to estimate what percentage of female inmates had experienced at least one incident of sexual coercion (broadly defined as pressured or forced sexual contact) while incarcerated. We assessed a variety of incidence rates. Because inmates tend to accumulate sexual coercion experiences as they are transferred among facilities, we estimated the rate for all of the statewide facilities in which inmates had resided. We also assessed how many inmates had been sexually coerced in the facility in which they currently resided. To determine the seriousness of reported incidents, we derived "rape" rates. We also calculated rates for a recent time period.
Another objective was to obtain inmates' and prison staff's perceptions of the sexual assault climate in a facility. We asked inmates and staff to guess how many inmates in the facility had experienced sexual coercion to see if perceived rates were similar to reported rates. In addition, we assessed how inmates and staff perceived the level of protection against sexual assault offered by a facility. One overriding objective was to look at the relationship between sexual coercion rates and qualities of the prison facilities and inmate populations.
Another goal was to describe the characteristics of women who were the targets of sexual coercion and what happened in their worst-case incident. We were especially interested in finding out who perpetrated incidents of sexual coercion. While the legal and human rights literature referred almost exclusively to prison staff, the social scientific literature indicated that other female inmates as well as staff were involved. We asked about the tactics used and sexual outcome of incidents in order to determine if they involved rape. We also assessed inmates' emotional and physical reactions to incidents. Finally, we wanted to know how many women reported the incident to authorities.
Selection of Facilities and Samples
The present study was part of a survey of multiple prison facilities for men and women. Due to past difficulties in obtaining permission to study prison populations, we sent out research requests to the DOCs in 14 states. We guaranteed that the identity of the facilities would be kept confidential. Five DOCs agreed to participate. We were given access to three women's facilities and seven men's facilities, all located in Midwestern states. Only the procedures and results of the women's facilities are presented in this study.
Surveys were administered to the total inmate population and security-related staff of the three facilities. Facility 1 was a maximum-medium-minimum security facility with 295 female inmates and 100 prison staff. Facility 2 was a maximum-medium-minimum security facility with 113 inmates and 26 staff. Facility 3 was a maximum-medium-minimum security facility with 60 female inmates and 154 staff who were responsible for male and female inmates.
Inmate survey. The inmate questionnaire was a modified version of an instrument used in a prior study (Struckman-Johnson et al., 1996). The inmate survey had sections for demographic data and crime background, perceptions of the prison environment, and opinions about sexual coercion. These led into more sensitive questions about experiences with sexual coercion. The first of these measured the statewide sexual coercion rate: "Since the time you have been in a (name of state) prison, has anyone ever pressured or forced you to have sexual contact (touching of genitals, oral, anal, or vaginal sex) against your will?" The facility sexual coercion rate was assessed by a follow-up question: "If yes or not sure, list all of the (name of state) facilities where it happened, how many times it happened in each facility, and the years you were in each facility."
The item for perceived sexual coercion rate read: "In the prison you are in now, about what percentage of inmates do you think have been pressured or forced to have sexual contact against their will? Circle your best guess." The choices were a row of percentages ranging from 0%, 1%, 5%, 10%, 20%, and so on to 100%. Inmates were also asked to rate the facility protection level: "In the prison you are in now, do you think that the prison system protects inmates from pressured or forced sexual contact?" The scale ranged from 1 (definitely no) to 7 (definitely yes).
Respondents with sexual coercion experience were asked about one worst case incident--either the only one that happened or the one time that was the "most serious or harmful to you." They answered questions about the number, race, and relationship of the perpetrators, the type of tactics used, and the sexual outcome. Respondents were asked to write a brief description of the incident.
The emotional reaction to the worst-case incident was measured by two items. One was a rating of the upset at the time the incident happened on a scale ranging from 1 (it was not upsetting) to 7 (it was very upsetting). The other asked if the incident had any lasting negative effects on a scale ranging from 1 (it has had no bad effect on me) to 7 (it has had a severe bad effect on me). Respondents then checked any bad effects the incident had caused from a list of emotional and physical consequences. Finally, respondents were asked what types of persons, if any, were told about the incident. See the tables in the Results section for the wording of the worst-case items.
Staff Survey. The staff survey had sections for demographic data and work history in corrections, perceptions of the prison environment, and opinions about sexual coercion. As in the inmate survey, staff answered questions about the perceived sexual coercion rate and facility protection level.
The study received human subjects approval from the university institutional review board and from the research review boards of the three prison facilities. It was agreed that inmates and staff would receive a consent form with their questionnaire that would explain the purpose and the voluntary and anonymous nature of the survey. Consent to participate was indicated by returning the survey. No signatures or personally identifying information were collected.
A consent form, questionnaire, and a return postage-paid envelope addressed to the researchers were placed in packets and distributed through the prison mail system to the inmates and staff (primarily correctional officers) of the three prison facilities. Respondents were instructed to return completed surveys through the prison mail service. They were told in the consent form that prison administrators would not open sealed surveys. A reminder postcard was distributed one week later.
In Facility 1,148 inmates (50% of the sample) and 30 staff (30% of the sample) returned usable surveys. In Facility 2, 79 of the inmates (70% of the sample) and 13 staff (50% of the sample) sent back usable surveys. Thirty-six inmates (60% of the sample) and 57 staff (37% of the sample) in Facility 3 returned usable surveys.
Table 1 shows the distribution of female inmates by facility for demographic and crime-history variables. The results revealed that respondents in Facility 1, compared to those from the other two facilities, were older, more racially and ethnically diverse, and more likely to be bisexual or homosexual. Facility 1 respondents also had a more serious crime background. Facility 3 was distinct from the other two facilities in that it had a substantial number of Native American inmates.
The 30 staff respondents from Facility 1 were 12 men (40%) and 18 women (60%) who were primarily Caucasian (73%) and Hispanic (20%). Twenty-five staff (80%) were correctional or security officers. In Facility 2, the 13 staff were 5 men (38%) and 8 (62%) women who were Caucasian (100%). Ten (77%) were correctional or security officers. In Facility 3, the 57 staff respondents (all correctional officers) were 44 men (77%) and 13 women (23%) who were Caucasian (98%).
Sexual Coercion Rates and Climate
Facility 1. As shown in Table 2, a substantial percentage of inmates from Facility 1 (27%) had been sexually coerced while incarcerated in their state prison system. Nineteen percent had experienced an incident while residing in Facility 1. Eighteen percent of the respondents gave information about a worst-case incident that took place in Facility 1. Five percent of the respondents' worst-case incidents were classified as rape in that they involved a force tactic and an outcome of oral, vaginal, or anal intercourse. In the 30 months before the survey, 12% of the respondents had experienced their worst-case incident, while 3% had been raped.
Inmates guessed that 21% of the women in the facility had been pressured or forced into sex, an estimate that was lower than the statewide rate, but very close to the facility rate. Staff, however, guessed that only 10% of the inmates had been sexually coerced. Inmates generally disagreed and staff generally agreed that their prison system protected them from sexual coercion.
Facility 2. Sexual coercion rates in Facility 2 were substantially lower than in Facility 1. Only 9% of responding inmates said that they had been sexually coerced while incarcerated anywhere in their state, and 6% said that an incident had happened in Facility 2. None of the worst-case incidents that took place in the facility were classifiable as rape. Most of the worst-case incidents had happened during the 30-month period preceding the survey.
The inmate guess of an 11% sexual coercion rate was several points higher than the reported statewide and facility rates. The staff guess of 2% was much lower than the reported rates. Inmates generally agreed and staff strongly agreed that that the prison system protected them from sexual coercion.
Facility 3. Sexual coercion rates were very similar to those in Facility 2. The statewide and facility sexual coercion rates were 8%. None of the worst-case incidents that happened in the facility qualified as rape. All of the worst-case incidents reported by inmates happened in the 30 months preceding the survey.
The inmate guess of a 13% sexual coercion rate was several points higher than the 8% report rate, while the staff guess was lower (4%). Inmates generally agreed and staff strongly agreed that the facility protected inmates from sexual coercion.
Facility 1. Twenty-seven of the 28 women who had been coerced in Facility 1 gave information about a worst-case incident. As shown in Table 3, half of the targets were Caucasian, while the rest were Black, Hispanic, and Native American. Targets were predominantly heterosexual and about one fourth were bisexual or homosexual. Nearly 70% of the targets had committed a crime against persons, compared to 45% of all respondents in this facility.
Over one third of the targets said that they had been assaulted by one person, while over 40% had been accosted by a group of two to three persons. One half of the perpetrators were women and one half were men. Most perpetrators were Caucasian, although many were Black and Hispanic. About half of the incidents were perpetrated by inmates, while 45% of the incidents involved one or more staff persons.
As shown in Table 4, the perpetrator(s) used only a pressure tactic in 37% of the cases, usually persuasion and bribery. The most commonly reported force tactics (used in 63% of the incidents) were threats of harm and intimidation by size. One third of the targets were physically restrained and 11% were harmed. Most of the incidents resulted in sexual touching as opposed to completed inter course. About a fourth of the targets were raped in that they were forced into oral, vaginal, or anal intercourse.
Targets' written descriptions clarified the dynamics of sexual coercion in Facility 1. Most of the inmate-perpetrated incidents involved forceful sexual touching. For example, a perpetrator would block the door to a woman's cell and try to fondle her as the woman tried to escape. Or, a perpetrator would push a woman up against the wall and attempt to rub her body. There were more serious incidents when one or more inmates would isolate and trap a target and force her to submit to a variety of sexual acts. Some verbatim descriptions of incidents perpetrated by inmates follow.
She would come up behind me & grab my breasts & run her body next to mine & I'd start pushing her away--She would say "come on baby let me turn you out." I'd say I'd die first. And I mean that too. She told me I wasn't her friend if I didn't agree then started kissing me locked the door pushed me on the bed and ripped my panties off she then pulled up her nightgown. She didn't have underwear on and started fucking me putting her pussy on mine moving up & down all over. I actually had an orgasium. But I was horrified, ashamed and bruised and battered. I wanted to kill her. 2 girls came in my room just playing at first. I thought it was funny. Then when I said no--because it was going to far--they threatened me. One played with my breast while the other one fingered me & made me finger the one playing with my breast. We were friends and were horse playing then got pinned down while they touched me then one of them removed her pants & underwear and the other one keep my head between her legs while the one without clothes moved back & forth and then made me lick her all over. Was tied down and everytime they would burn me if I didn't submit. They used different things.
The staff-perpetrated incidents at Facility 1 typically involved a male staff person who would sneak up on female inmates at work or in their cells and attempt to fondle and kiss them. Most of the targets were able to escape the situation, but they feared that the officer would repeat the attempt. One officer bribed and pressured two female inmates to have sex while he watched and masturbated. Some verbatim descriptions of staff incidents follow.
I went to the shed several times to get clothes for new arrivals and he creeped into the shed with me. He rubbed himself across my rear end and got him off of me by hitting him with all of my might with a trash can lid and I told him that I'd gladly kill him if he tried it again. He sent me home for the day. Was asleep in my cell when an officer opened my cell & rubbed his penis on my face. While I wouldn't perform oral sex on him, he threatened me--I'll never get out, & trump up charges. You'll go to "the hole" etc. He constantly made sexual remarks & asked for sexual favors, grabbed at my private part. The other officer tried to rip my clothes off while in the hole. He was only escorted out of my cell then yelled at. I was taking a shower and an officer came into the shower room and made sexual comments to me about my breast. She described to me how good she could make me feel. I told her I would report her for harassing me sexually. She got angry and grabbed my left breast and squeezed it until I screamed with pain and fear. I tried to get her off but she is a very--and strong woman. Finally, I gave in and she began to suck my breast and rub my vagina. I started to cry loudly and another inmate came into the shower and she backed off. She told me that noone here would believe me if I ever report her. I reported this officer and I was ignored ... I am still currently being harassed by this officer. Tried to talk me into cooperating. Said "no" then grabbed and constantly touched me & cornered me & took out his penis & wanted sex--forced oral sex on me held me down, etc. We need help, lot of this going on--4 officers walked off property over sexual misconduct in last 2 years Help US!
All targets experienced at least one bad effect of the incident (Table 5). The most reported effects were nervousness around people, distrust of people, and worry that it would happen again. Half of the targets experienced flash backs and depression. Three targets (11%) reported physical injuries including an inmate who had permanent bum scars from the episode described above. The female inmates reported very high ratings of upset at the time the incident happened. Ratings of the lasting effects were in the high range. About 60% of the targets told someone about the incident, but only 30% reported it to the prison administration.
Facility 2. Only five women at Facility 2 reported a worst-case incident that had happened at their facility. Therefore, the percentages reported for the variables in Tables 3 through 5 are not reliable. Over half of the targets were Caucasian and heterosexual. A majority of the perpetrators were Caucasian female inmates. One incident involved a prison staff person.
No incidents were classifiable as rape. According to written descriptions, most of the targets encountered a single, sexually aggressive female inmate who attempted to fondle and seduce them. In the one reported staff incident, a male officer subtly propositioned the woman. The targets reported high levels of upset and numerous bad effects from the incidents. Only one target told a prison administrator.
Facility 3. Only two women at Facility 3 reported a worst-case incident that had happened at their facility; therefore, the percentages reported in Tables 3 through 5 are not reliable. The targets were Caucasian and Hispanic heterosexuals. Neither target was raped. According to written descriptions, one woman was forcefully held down and touched by another female inmate. The other was forcefully restrained and sexually touched by a female staff member during a strip search. The targets were very upset by the incidents and reported numerous bad effects. They did not report the incidents to the prison administration.
Our study revealed that sexual aggression does take place in women's prisons, but that the frequency of the behavior may depend upon the characteristics of the facility and its inmate population. When we started this project, we anticipated that the sexual coercion rates would be somewhere close to the 7% rate found by Struckman-Johnson et al. (1996). The facility rates of 9% for Facility 2 and 8% for Facility 3 were expected. However, the 27% statewide rate and 19% facility rate for women in Facility 1 were surprising. These rates were comparable to those reported for several men's prisons in the Midwest (Struckman-Johnson & Struckman-Johnson, 2000.)
Our data suggested that Facility 1 was a vastly different place than Facilities 2 and 3. Facility 1 could be described as a rough prison where nearly half of the inmates had committed serious crimes against persons. The inmate population was racially and ethnically diverse and relatively large (n = 300) for a Midwestern women's facility. In addition, the facility appeared to have security and management problems. The inmates gave an unusually low rating to the protection level offered by the prison system. Many respondents cited problems with inadequate surveillance, predatory staff, noncaring and unresponsive staff, and policies that protected rather than punished staff and inmate sexual predators. Research on men's prisons shows that these factors which existed in Facility 1--inmate crime severity, large inmate population size, racial diversity, and low security--appear to contribute to higher sexual coercion rates (Struckman-Johnson & Struckman-Johnson, 2000).
Facilities 2 and 3, by contrast, were not rough prisons. Both facilities held a relatively small number of female inmates (n < 120) who, for the most part, had not committed crimes against persons. The inmates of Facility 2 and 3 were predominantly Caucasian and not as racially diverse as Facility 1 inmates. Also in contrast to Facility 1, the inmates of Facilities 2 and 3 generally had a favorable view of their prison's security level and management policies. Inmates in both facilities frequently commented that their staff watched out for them. Facility 2 inmates, in particular, praised their prison administration's "zero tolerance" policy for sexual coercion. However, there were dissenters in both facilities who alleged that staff covered up sexual coercion incidents.
Our findings about worst-case incidents are tentative because of the small sample size of targets (n = 34). We found that most targets were in their thirties, an age similar to the other inmates in the facilities. Female targets were most likely to be heterosexual and Caucasian, but women from all racial groups reported victimization. Although we expected that targets would have nonviolent crime backgrounds, most of the targets in Facility 1 had committed a crime against persons. Perhaps these women associated with other women with aggressive tendencies in the prison system and were more likely to be victimized. Or possibly the women tended to attract perpetrators--inmates or staff--because of their toughness or crime reputation. One target inmate wrote that she was "singled out" by a staff perpetrator because he wanted to prove that he was tougher than she was.
One of our most important findings was that nearly one half of the incidents of sexual coercion were carded out by female inmates. Incidents ranged from casual sexual grabs to injurious gang rapes. This finding contrasts with the assertion that same-sex sexual abuse in women's prison is rare (e.g., Human Rights Watch, 1996). We conclude that prison conditions can potentially foster female sexual aggression. We speculate that many women who go to prison are more aggressive than the typical woman, as evidenced by their crime background. Their aggressive tendencies may translate into sexual aggression in the confinement of a prison setting. The harshness and demands of prison life most likely contribute to sexual coercion among female inmates. According to Greer (2000), some women's prisons are becoming more like men's prisons in that many inmates meet their needs through manipulation and exploitation of other inmates.
Our study does support the claims in the literature that custodial sexual abuse is a serious problem. Almost half of the incidents reported by female targets were perpetrated by staff. Typically, a male staff member would corner an inmate in an isolated area and forcefully fondle her. However, a number of incidents involved female staff who used similar strategies to victimize women. We note this finding because so much of the literature presumes that male staff are the sole perpetrators of custodial sexual abuse. According to our findings, both men and women working at the prison used their authority to bribe, blackmail, and force inmates into sexual contact.
Another important finding of our study is that most of the incidents involved forceful fondling of genitals and breasts, but not forced oral, anal or vaginal intercourse. About one out of five incidents qualified as rape. The women had strong negative reactions to all types of incidents, including nervousness around people, fear that it would happen again, and depression. Two women said that they attempted suicide as a result of a sexual coercion incident. Many women came to hate their assailant(s) and one in five said that they were moved to commit violence. Our impression is that much of this trauma occurred because victims could not avoid the perpetrators. Many women said that their assailants, whether they were staff or other inmates, found ways to track them and harass them almost daily in the confines of the prison. One woman wrote that she wanted to cut her own face in order to make people leave her alone.
Finally, we found that women were not likely to report. Only about a third of the women told a prison administrator about the incident. When asked why they did not report, inmates typically responded that they feared retaliation from the perpetrators, especially staff who could make prison life very difficult for them. Also, targeted women anticipated that no one would believe them. The bad girl syndrome discussed by Baro (1997) exists in that these victimized women maintained their silence because they felt they had no credibility.
There are several limitations to the results of our study. Our information about sexual coercion was based on anonymous written self-reports that could not be verified through other means. However, we believe that the anonymous nature of the survey encouraged honest and accurate responses. It has been shown that reporting of sensitive or stigmatized behaviors is significantly increased under conditions of anonymity as compared to a promise of confidentiality (Ong & Weiss, 2000). In the prison setting, it is particularly important to use anonymous self-reports so that inmates can privately disclose sexual victimization without fear of being stigmatized as a "snitch" or "bait" to others.
Another potential problem is deceptive reporting. Some inmates may have falsely reported sexual coercion to us to impugn the reputation of the prison administration system or individual perpetrators. Although we have previously detected false reports of sexual coercion in other data sets, we did not find any suspicious answers in the screening of the women's data. Respondent descriptions of incidents were consistent, detailed, and high in face validity. In addition, we think that if inmates were motivated to give false reports to make their prisons look bad, we would have received a greater number of sexual coercion reports from Facilities 2 and 3.
The study is limited in that we do not know how representative the female inmate samples were of the total inmate populations of the three facilities. Although we made requests, the administrations of the three women's facilities did not provide us descriptive data of the total prison populations. We did receive demographic data for the total inmate populations for three men's facilities that were surveyed at the Same time as the female prisons. The male return samples were similar to the their respective total populations for age categories, but had higher proportions of White and better-educated inmates (Struckman-Johnson & Struckman-Johnson, 2000). These differences may apply to the return samples from the three women's facilities.
A related concern is whether the sexual coercion rates reported by our respondents were representative of the rates of the total population of the facilities. Our high return rates (50% to 70%) gave us confidence in the accuracy of our results. However, it is possible that women who were victimized were more interested in and thus more likely to respond to the survey than non-victims. If so, then our estimates of the sexual coercion rates are too high. However, it is also possible that some victims did not report their incidents to us because they feared that their surveys would be opened by nosy staff or other inmates, or they felt it was no one's business, or because they had trouble reading and answering the survey questions. In the final analysis, we think that under-reporting of sexual coercion was more of a problem than over-reporting. As evidence, we learned that a correctional officer at Facility 2 was put on trial for raping two female inmates at about the time we conducted the survey. However, we did not receive any survey reports of rape from this facility.
In summary, our study revealed a serious problem with sexual coercion in one prison facility for women and minor to moderate problems in two other facilities. This finding does not support the sweeping conclusions appearing in much of the literature that sexual abuse is extensive in women's prisons. Our recommendation for future research is to assess sexual coercion on a facility-by-facility basis because rates may be highly variable. We also recommend that future research recognize female sexual aggression in prison settings. We have learned in past research that women are not viewed as potential sexual aggressors because of their supposed gentle nature, low sexual interest, or inability to physically overpower another person (Struckman-Johnson & Anderson, 1998). However, over half of the incidents reported in this study were committed by women.
We strongly encourage social and sex scientists to conduct further research on this topic. It would be interesting to find out why certain women are chosen as targets. To what extent does physical attractiveness, passivity, toughness, or sexual orientation contribute to their victimization? For example, Facility 1 in the present study had a relatively high number of women who reported a homosexual or bisexual orientation. Does this factor contribute to the higher rates of same-sex sexual coercion in a facility? It would also be important to learn the characteristics and motives of inmate and staff sexual predators. Is their behavior motivated by sexual desire and fantasies, misdirected quests for intimacy and romance, or needs for power and dominance? To what extent does race influence these interactions?
We found that sexual coercion has strong negative effects on victims. It would be valuable to explore what happens to these women when they leave prison and reenter or form new social-sexual relationships. Further research on questions such as these will not only add to our theoretical understanding of sexual aggression, but may enhance society's ability to provide protection and treatment for women in prison.
Table 1. Inmate Demographics for Women's Prison Facilities Facility 1 Sample size Total inmates surveyed--estimated 295 Acceptable returned surveys 148 (50%) Age 17-25 17 (12%) 26-36 68 (46%) 37-47 50 (34%) 48+ 8 (5%) Missing 5 (3%) Average 35 years Race White 67 (45%) Black 36 (24%) Hispanic 27 (18%) Native American 11 (7%) Asian/Other 5 (3%) Missing 2 (1%) Education Grade school 5 (3%) Some high school 19 (13%) High school / GED 41 (28%) Trade school 19 (13%) Some college 45 (30%) College degree 17 (12%) Missing 2 (1%) Sexual orientation Heterosexual 89 (60%) Bisexual 30 (20%) Homosexual 22 (15%) Missing 7 (5%) Crime for present incarceration (a) Drug related 54 (36%) Against property 37 (25%) Against persons 66 (45%) Against public order 21 (14%) Crime type ever committed (a) Murder 26 (18%) Rape 0 (0%) Assault 29 (20%) Robbery 9 (6%) Sex contact with child 3 (2%) Possession of a controlled substance 41 (28%) Forgery, fraud 29 (20%) Larceny, grand theft 13 (9%) Damage to property 10 (7%) DWI 11 (7%) Average time in present facility 2.9 years Average maximum sentence 18.1 years Facility 2 Sample size Total inmates surveyed--estimated 113 Acceptable returned surveys 79 (70%) Age 17-25 23 (29%) 26-36 29 (37%) 37-47 19 (24%) 48+ 5 (6%) Missing 3 (4%) Average 31 years Race White 61 (77%) Black 4 (5%) Hispanic 6 (8%) Native American 2 (3%) Asian/Other 4 (5%) Missing 2 (3%) Education Grade school 0 (0%) Some high school 11 (14%) High school / GED 33 (42%) Trade school 4 (5%) Some college 25 (32%) College degree 6 (8%) Missing 0 (0%) Sexual orientation Heterosexual 63 (80%) Bisexual 10 (13%) Homosexual 4 (5%) Missing 2 (3%) Crime for present incarceration (a) Drug related 19 (24%) Against property 46 (58%) Against persons 18 (23%) Against public order 8 (10%) Crime type ever committed (a) Murder 3 (4%) Rape 0 (0%) Assault 7 (9%) Robbery 2 (2%) Sex contact with child 1 (1%) Possession of a controlled substance 10 (13%) Forgery, fraud 29 (37%) Larceny, grand theft 16 (20%) Damage to property 4 (5%) DWI 2 (2%) Average time in present facility 1.8 years Average maximum sentence 9.9 years Facility 3 Sample size Total inmates surveyed--estimated 60 Acceptable returned surveys 36 (60%) Age 17-25 16 (44%) 26-36 16 (44%) 37-47 4 (11%) 48+ 0 (0%) Missing 0 (0%) Average 28 years Race White 20 (56%) Black 3 (8%) Hispanic 1 (3%) Native American 11 (30%) Asian/Other 0 (0%) Missing 1 (3%) Education Grade school 0 (0%) Some high school 5 (14%) High school / GED 14 (39%) Trade school 4 (11%) Some college 10 (28%) College degree 0 (0%) Missing 3 (8%) Sexual orientation Heterosexual 30 (83%) Bisexual 4 (11%) Homosexual 2 (6%) Missing 0 (0%) Crime for present incarceration (a) Drug related 15 (42%) Against property 12 (33%) Against persons 13 (36%) Against public order 2 (6%) Crime type ever committed (a) Murder 4 (11%) Rape 0 (0%) Assault 4 (11%) Robbery 3 (8%) Sex contact with child 0 (0%) Possession of a controlled substance 7 (19%) Forgery, fraud 10 (28%) Larceny, grand theft 0 (0%) Damage to property 1 (3%) DWI 5 (14%) Average time in present facility 1.4 years Average maximum sentence 11.4 years (a) Percentages total more than 100 because respondents could check multiple categories. Table 2. Sexual Coercion Rates and Estimates for Women's Prison Facilities Facility 1 Sample size--inmates 148 Sample size--staff 30 Inmates reporting a sexual coercion incident in any prison/jail in the state 40 (27%) Inmates reporting a sexual coercion incident in this facility 28 (19%) Inmates reporting a worst-case incident in this facility 27 (18%) Inmates reporting a worst-case incident in this facility in the last 30 months 18 (12%) Inmates reporting a worst-case incident of rape in this facility 8 (5%) Inmates reporting a worst-case incident of rape in this facility in the last 30 months 5 (3%) Inmate estimate of how many inmates are pressured/forced into sex in this facility (0-100%) 21% Staff estimate of how many inmates are pressured/forced into sex in this facility (0-100%) 10% Inmate rating of sexual assault protection level in this facility (1-7) 3.00 Low-Med Staff rating of sexual assault protection level in this facility (1-7) 5.10 High Facility 2 Sample size--inmates 79 Sample size--staff 13 Inmates reporting a sexual coercion incident in any prison/jail in the state 7 (9%) Inmates reporting a sexual coercion incident in this facility 5 (6%) Inmates reporting a worst-case incident in this facility 5 (6%) Inmates reporting a worst-case incident in this facility in the last 30 months 3 (4%) Inmates reporting a worst-case incident of rape in this facility 0 (0%) Inmates reporting a worst-case incident of rape in this facility in the last 30 months 0 (0%) Inmate estimate of how many inmates are pressured/forced into sex in this facility (0-100%) 11% Staff estimate of how many inmates are pressured/forced into sex in this facility (0-100%) 2% Inmate rating of sexual assault protection level in this facility (1-7) 5.5 High Staff rating of sexual assault protection level in this facility (1-7) 6.70 Very High Facility 3 Sample size--inmates 36 Sample size--staff 57 Inmates reporting a sexual coercion incident in any prison/jail in the state 3 (8%) Inmates reporting a sexual coercion incident in this facility 3 (8%) Inmates reporting a worst-case incident in this facility 2 (5%) Inmates reporting a worst-case incident in this facility in the last 30 months 2 (5%) Inmates reporting a worst-case incident of rape in this facility 0 (0%) Inmates reporting a worst-case incident of rape in this facility in the last 30 months 0 (0%) Inmate estimate of how many inmates are pressured/forced into sex in this facility (0-100%) 13% Staff estimate of how many inmates are pressured/forced into sex in this facility (0-100%) 4% Inmate rating of sexual assault protection level in this facility (1-7) 5.2 High Staff rating of sexual assault protection level in this facility (1-7) 6.0 High Note. All three facilities were of maximum, medium, minimum security levels. Staff from Facility 3 served both female and mal e inmates. Table 3. Target and Perpetrator Characteristics for Worst-Case Incidents Facility 1 Number of targets 27 Age of target 17-25 3 (11%) 26-36 8 (30%) 37-47 12 (44%) 48+ 3 (11%) Missing 1 (4%) Average 37 years Race of target White 14 (52%) Black 3 (11%) Hispanic 5 (18%) Native American 4 (15%) Asian/Other 1 (4%) Missing 0 (0%) Sexual orientation of target inmates Heterosexual 19 (70%) Bisexual 4 (15%) Homosexual 3 (11%) Missing 1 (4%) Crime background of target inmates (a) Drug related 5 (18%) Against property 9 (33%) Against persons 18 (67%) Against public order 1 (4%) Average maximum sentence 21.0 years Year incident happened 1970-1985 0 (0%) 1986-1990 3 (11%) 1991-1995 5 (18%) 1996-1998 18 (67%) Missing 1 (4%) Number of perpetrators involved 1 10 (37%) 2-3 12 (44%) 4-5 1 (4%) 6-10 1 (4%) 10+ 0 (0%) Missing 3 (11%) Average 2.0 Sex of perpetrator Male 13 (48%) Female 13 (48%) Both 0 (0%) Missing 1 (4%) Race of perpetrator White 11 (41%) Black 5 (18%) Hispanic 5 (18%) Native American 0 (0%) Black with others 2 (7%) White, Native, Hispanic mix 1 (4%) Missing 3 (11%) Relationship of perpetrator Inmate--stranger only 1 (4%) Inmate--acquaintance only 11 (41%) Inmate--stranger and acquaintance 1 (4%) Staff only 11 (41%) Inmate and staff only 0 (0%) Other staff-involved combination 1 (4%) Other visitor-involved combination 2 (7%) Facility 2 Number of targets 5 Age of target 17-25 1 (20%) 26-36 1 (20%) 37-47 3 (60%) 48+ 0 (0%) Missing 0 (0%) Average 36 years Race of target White 3 (60%) Black 0 (0%) Hispanic 1 (20%) Native American 0 (0%) Asian/Other 0 (0%) Missing 1 (20%) Sexual orientation of target inmates Heterosexual 4 (80%) Bisexual 1 (20%) Homosexual 0 (0%) Missing 0 (0%) Crime background of target inmates (a) Drug related 2 (40%) Against property 4 (80%) Against persons 1 (20%) Against public order 1 (20%) Average maximum sentence 8.0 years Year incident happened 1970-1985 0 (0%) 1986-1990 0 (0%) 1991-1995 2 (40%) 1996-1998 3 (60%) Missing 0 (0%) Number of perpetrators involved 1 2 (40%) 2-3 3 (60%) 4-5 0 (0%) 6-10 0 (0%) 10+ 0 (0%) Missing 0 (0%) Average 1.6 Sex of perpetrator Male 1 (20%) Female 4 (80%) Both 0 (0%) Missing 0 (0%) Race of perpetrator White 4 (80%) Black 0 (0%) Hispanic 0 (0%) Native American 0 (0%) Black with others 1 (20%) White, Native, Hispanic mix 0 (0%) Missing 0 (0%) Relationship of perpetrator Inmate--stranger only 0 (0%) Inmate--acquaintance only 2 (40%) Inmate--stranger and acquaintance 1 (20%) Staff only 1 (20%) Inmate and staff only 0 (0%) Other staff-involved combination 0 (0%) Other visitor-involved combination 1 (20%) Facility 3 Number of targets 2 Age of target 17-25 1 (50%) 26-36 0 (0%) 37-47 1 (50%) 48+ 0 (0%) Missing 0 (0%) Average 34 years Race of target White 1 (50%) Black 0 (0%) Hispanic 1 (50%) Native American 0 (0%) Asian/Other 0 (0%) Missing 0 (0%) Sexual orientation of target inmates Heterosexual 2 (100%) Bisexual 0 (0%) Homosexual 0 (0%) Missing 0 (0%) Crime background of target inmates (a) Drug related 0 (0%) Against property 2 (100%) Against persons 0 (0%) Against public order 0 (0%) Average maximum sentence 2.5 years Year incident happened 1970-1985 0 (0%) 1986-1990 0 (0%) 1991-1995 0 (0%) 1996-1998 2 (100%) Missing 0 (0%) Number of perpetrators involved 1 1 (50%) 2-3 0 (0%) 4-5 1 (50%) 6-10 0 (0%) 10+ 0 (0%) Missing 0 (0%) Average - Sex of perpetrator Male 0 (0%) Female 2 (100%) Both 0 (0%) Missing 0 (0%) Race of perpetrator White 1 (50%) Black 0 (0%) Hispanic 0 (0%) Native American 0 (0%) Black with others 0 (0%) White, Native, Hispanic mix 1 (50%) Missing 0 (0%) Relationship of perpetrator Inmate--stranger only 0 (0%) Inmate--acquaintance only 0 (0%) Inmate--stranger and acquaintance 1 (50%) Staff only 1 (50%) Inmate and staff only 0 (0%) Other staff-involved combination 0 (0%) Other visitor-involved combination 0 (0%) (a) Percentages total more than 100 because respondents could check multiple categories. Table 4. Tactics and Sexual Outcomes for Worst-Case Incidents Facility 1 2 Number of targets 27 5 Perpetrator tactic (a) Persuasion 11 (41%) 4 (80%) Bribe 6 (22%) 1 (20%) Blackmail 3 (11%) 1 (20%) Love withdrawal 3 (11%) 0 (0%) Got victim drunk 0 (0%) 0 (0%) Threatened harm 11 (41%) 1 (20%) Scared with size 12 (44%) 1 (20%) Physically held down 9 (33%) 1 (20%) Physically harmed 3 (11%) 0 (0%) Used a weapon 0 (0%) 0 (0%) Other 8 (30%) 4 (80%) Missing 1 (4%) 0 (0%) Pressure tactic only used l0 (37%) 3 (60%) At least 1 force tactic used 17 (63%) 2 (40%) Sexual outcome Touching only 19 (70%) 5(100%) Intercourse (oral, anal, vaginal) 8 (30%) 0 (0%) Rape (forced intercourse outcome) 7 (26%) 0 (0%) Facility 3 Number of targets 2 Perpetrator tactic (a) Persuasion 2 (0%) Bribe 0 (0%) Blackmail 0 (0%) Love withdrawal 0 (0%) Got victim drunk 0 (0%) Threatened harm 2 (100%) Scared with size 1 (50%) Physically held down 1 (50%) Physically harmed 1 (50%) Used a weapon 1 (50%) Other 0 (0%) Missing 0 (0%) Pressure tactic only used 0 (0%) At least 1 force tactic used 2 (100%) Sexual outcome Touching only 2 (100%) Intercourse (oral, anal, vaginal) 0 (0%) Rape (forced intercourse outcome) 0 (0%) (a) Percentages total more than 100 because respondents could check multiple categories. Table 5. Consequences and Reporting for Worst-Case Incidents Facility 1 Number of targets 27 Consequences (a) No bad effects 0 (0%) Nervous around people 22 (82%) Don't like people getting close 15 (56%) Don't trust people 19 (70%) Worry about reputation 10 (37%) Worry it will happen again 19 (70%) Flashbacks, bad dreams 13 (48%) Depression 14 (52%) Thoughts of suicide 4 (15%) Attempted suicide 2 (7%) Have physical injuries 3 (11%) Worry about AIDS 3 (11%) Have caught a disease 0 (0%) Made me hate people 9 (33%) Caused me to be violent 6 (22%) Other 7 (26%) Missing 1 (4%) Average rating of first upset (1-7) 6.6 (Very High) Average rating of lasting effects (1-7) 5.8 (High) Reporting (a) Number who told anyone 16 (59%) Told another inmate 12 (44%) Counselor-clergy 7 (26%) Teacher 1 (4%) Medical person 1 (4%) Prison staff--not administrative 7 (26%) Prison administrators 8 (30%) Friends, family outside of prison 8 (30%) Other 5 (18%) Missing 1 (4%) Facility 2 Number of targets 5 Consequences (a) No bad effects 0 (0%) Nervous around people 2 (40%) Don't like people getting close 3 (60%) Don't trust people 3 (60%) Worry about reputation 3 (60%) Worry it will happen again 1 (20%) Flashbacks, bad dreams 1 (20%) Depression 2 (40%) Thoughts of suicide 0 (0%) Attempted suicide 0 (0%) Have physical injuries 0 (0%) Worry about AIDS 0 (0%) Have caught a disease 0 (0%) Made me hate people 0 (0%) Caused me to be violent 0 (0%) Other 3 (60%) Missing 0 (0%) Average rating of first upset (1-7) 6.2 (High) Average rating of lasting effects (1-7) 5.2 (High) Reporting (a) Number who told anyone 4 (80%) Told another inmate 3 (60%) Counselor-clergy 2 (40%) Teacher 1 (20%) Medical person 1 (20%) Prison staff--not administrative 2 (40%) Prison administrators 1 (20%) Friends, family outside of prison 2 (40%) Other 0 (0%) Missing 0 (0%) Facility 3 Number of targets 2 Consequences (a) No bad effects 0 (0%) Nervous around people 2(100%) Don't like people getting close 1 (50%) Don't trust people 2(100%) Worry about reputation 1 (50%) Worry it will happen again 1 (50%) Flashbacks, bad dreams 2(100%) Depression 1 (50%) Thoughts of suicide 0 (0%) Attempted suicide 0 (0%) Have physical injuries 0 (0%) Worry about AIDS 0 (0%) Have caught a disease 0 (0%) Made me hate people 0 (0%) Caused me to be violent 0 (0%) Other 0 (0%) Missing 0 (0%) Average rating of first upset (1-7) 7.0 (Very High) Average rating of lasting effects (1-7) 6.0 (High) Reporting (a) Number who told anyone 1 (50%) Told another inmate 1 (50%) Counselor-clergy 0 (0%) Teacher 0 (0%) Medical person 0 (0%) Prison staff--not administrative 1 (50%) Prison administrators 0 (0%) Friends, family outside of prison 1 (50%) Other 0 (0%) Missing 0 (0%) (a) Percentages total more than 100 because respondents could check multiple categories.
Portions of this paper were presented at the joint annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Sexuality and the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists in November, 1999, St. Louis, MO, and at the annual meeting of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences in March, 2000, New Orleans, LA.
We give our grateful thanks to our secretary Lois Norling and our undergraduate students Kathy Bates, Gabriel Champagne, Jason Christenson, Shannon Cleberg, Elisa Cruz, Kelly Erickson, George Johnson, Shannon Kelly, Jamie Kuper, Teresa Lenling, Jackie Meloy, Wendy Wetherall, and Deanna Zent for their invaluable assistance with the survey.
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Cindy Struckman-Johnson and David Struckman-Johnson University of South Dakota
Address correspondence to Cindy Struckman-Johnson, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, University of South Dakota, 414 East Clark St., Vermillion, SD 57069; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.