88,500 Sexually Abused in US Prisons and Jails

At the end of August the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) release the latest in a string of damning reports showing the prevalence of sexual abuse in U.S. prisons,  jails and detention facilities. The new government report finds that at least 88,500 adults were sexually abused in U.S. prisons in jails last year, a number that included 4.4% of all prison inmates and 3.1% percent of all jail inmates. This follows a BJS report from January finding that more than 12% of youth in juvenile detention in the United States had been sexually abused in the previous year.

Although previous research led the National Prison Rape Elimination  Commission to conclude last year that transgender people are at especially high risk for sexual abuse in confinement, BJS does not collect data on gender identity, so we do not know how many transgender people were sexually abused in confinement in the United States. While a major California study recently found that as many as two thirds of transgender inmates in California had been sexually abused, we have no such data at the national level. However, BJS does track inmate sexual orientation, and we also know that most transgender inmates are identified in surveys (accurately in some cases, and not in others) as having “a sexual orientation other than heterosexual.” The BJS found that these “non-heterosexual” inmates were more than twice as likely to be sexually abused by prison staff and more than eight times as likely to be abused by other inmates; numbers for jails were similar. This data confirms that all LGBT people are at extreme risk for sexual abuse behind bars, and underscores both the need for federal data collection on transgender people and for prevention strategies that address the specific vulnerabilities of these inmates and detainees.

In May, NCTE joined hundreds of other organizations in filing formal comments urging the Department of Justice to adopt strong national standards to prevent sexual abuse in prisons that would specifically address the extreme vulnerability of transgender people in institutional settings. In June, the Justice Department missed the legal deadline for it to promulgate these much-needed standards. Meanwhile, incremental reforms being undertaken by some state and federal agencies, such as U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE), fail to address the far-reaching scope of the problem. NCTE continues to work with allied organizations to urge the Department of Justice and ICE to take strong and decisive steps to prevent the abuse of transgender people and to address the extraordinary harms caused by sexual abuse.

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