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    This study was supported by the Office of Justice Programs (Grant OJP-2004-RP-BX-0012) and the National Institute of Mental Health (Grant P20 MH66170). Direct correspondence to Nancy Wolff, Ph.D., Center for Mental Health Services & Criminal Justice Research, Rutgers University, 30 College Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ 08901 (e-mail: nwolff@ifh.rutgers.edu).


Research Summary:

Broad consensus exists across the country and political spectrum that sexual victimization occurs inside prisons and that it should be prevented in accordance with basic human rights, especially inside institutions that are funded and operated by government. The challenging task is to confirm the speculation by measuring reliably the extent to which sexual victimization occurs inside prison and then to understand its causal structure in an effort to prevent it. This article addresses this challenge first by summarizing what is known about the prevalence of sexual victimization in the prisons of America and then by exploring attributes of the inmate or facility that elevate the likelihood of being sexually victimized while inside prison. This descriptive evidence provides the roadmap for more contextual research that is needed to explore the causal mechanism underlying sexual victimization. The predictive part of this article uses a data set on the self-reported victimization experiences of approximately 8,000 inmates residing in twelve male adult prisons, one sex offender treatment prison for males, and one female adult prison, all located in a single state.

Policy Implications:

If the goal is to reduce sexual victimization inside prisons (as suggested by the Prison Rape Elimination Act), action is required by prison officials and researchers to identify those at elevated risk, to develop effective placement strategies that minimize the proximity of inmates who have predatory tendencies to those at risk of victimization, to accurately and reliably measure the prevalence of sexual victimization, and to train officers and inmates on the meaning and practice of “zero tolerance.” Custodial power should be targeted to ensure zero tolerance because sexual victimization inside prison is not just a crime, but it is also a crime that takes place in a facility that is created, funded, and operated by the state and where the state bears the full responsibility for keeping the people under its aegis from harm that is predictable and preventable.