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If there is anything one takes away about US prisons from television and movies, it is that there is a really high chance of you getting raped in the shower or in some other dark place.

Now, I don't know that much about US prisons, but it always struck me as a bit drastic.

Is rape a common occurrence in US prisons? If so, how is this possible? Do the guards look the other way? Is supervision incomplete?

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    I found this story from someone who has got out. It is quite gory but he says rape is not a big issue, everyone is too stoned to worry about it. Prison Story – Craig May 10 '11 at 21:45
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    There is a pretty detailed report from 2001 on male prison rape by the Human Rights Watch organization that you might consider perusing - hrw.org/legacy/reports/2001/prison/report.html – Scott Mitchell May 11 '11 at 22:56
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    With the extreme surveillance and restrictive environment present in a prison, I think this is more about mens' worst fears than reality. – Ernie Nov 17 '11 at 20:45
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    @Ernie Well, unless the guards turn a blind eye to such activities, or even participate in them. – Lagerbaer Nov 23 '11 at 0:54
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I think it's important to compare with what you'd expect in the general population against what you'd expect in prisons. According to the Twelfth United Nations Survey of Crime Trends and Operations of Criminal Justice Systems the incidents of rape in the US is 28.6 per 1000 in 2008 (on a steady decline from 31.6 in 2003).

I came upon an article in reason.com reporting that the DOJ (U.S. Departement of Justice) has recently attempted to estimate the amount of sexual abuse in prisons in America. I've emailed the reporter asking for directions to the actual report, but the reason.com give these statistics that I found interesting:

The U.S. Department of Justice recently released its first-ever estimate of the number of inmates who are sexually abused in America each year. According to the department’s data, which are based on nationwide surveys of prison and jail inmates as well as young people in juvenile detention centers, at least 216,600 inmates were victimized in 2008 alone. Contrary to popular belief, most of the perpetrators were not other prisoners but staff members—corrections officials whose job it is to keep inmates safe. On average, each victim was abused between three and five times over the course of the year. The vast majority were too fearful of reprisals to seek help or file a formal complaint.

However you shouldn't assume that people who work in prisons are abusive, even going by accusation it's a low number of the total. A DOJ report from September 2009 reports that 4.7% of all staff members under the BOP (Federal Bureau of Prisons) has been accused of sexual assault, it doesn't however seem to break it down into categories containing the nature of the abuse.

On the bright side I did find out that congress has attempted to do something about prison rape back in 2003:

The Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 directs prison officials to make the prevention of sexual abuse in prisons a top management priority. The Prison Rape Elimination Act defines “prisons” broadly to include not only federal and state prisons and local jails, but also short-term lockups such as cellblocks and other holding facilities regardless of their size.

This is a placeholder until I can find the DOJ statistics.

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    Is the 28.6 per 1000 a per year stat or per lifetime? – SteveGSD Jun 24 '11 at 20:13
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    @CowKingDeluxe - Excellent question! It's for 2008, the report itself covers 2003-2008. – Kit Sunde Jun 24 '11 at 21:33
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    Is 28.6 per 1000 p.a. for men, women or both? The TV shows are generally about male-on-male rape, but I strongly suspect that a majority of the rapes outside prison are male-on-female. – Oddthinking Mar 14 '12 at 13:20
  • @Oddthinking - I would think it's from both, though men are far more likely to do that (I've seen stats for Sweden to back that up once, but I won't be able to find them right now). I added it to illustrate what is normal in society versus what is normal in this population. – Kit Sunde Mar 15 '12 at 7:58
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    @Kit: Ok, 216,600 in a population of 2,353,727 prisoners (Sum of adults and youths from [Ref]) gives a rate of 92 per 1000. You could compare it to 28.6, and say it is a 220% increase. But if the question is "Is the chance of being a rape victim higher for male prisoners compared to the outside world (as portrayed in media)?" this doesn't answer it. It is likely the increase is much, much higher. – Oddthinking Mar 15 '12 at 8:12
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According to Sexual Victimization in Prisons and Jails Reported by Inmates, 2011–12 (U.S. Department of Justice: Bureau of Justice Statistics, May 2013)

Among the 91,177 adult prison and jail inmates participating in the NIS-3 sexual victimization survey, 3,381 reported experiencing one or more incidents of sexual victimization in the past 12 months or since admission to the facility, if less than 12 months. Since the NIS-3 is a sample survey, weights were applied for sampled facilities and inmates within facilities to produce national-level and facility-level estimates. The estimated number of prison and jail inmates experiencing sexual victimization totaled 80,600 (or 4.0% of all prison inmates and 3.2% of jail inmates nationwide)

So basically a 4% chance per year of incarceration.

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