Incidents of sexual abuse in United States prisons increased by 11 percent from 2009 to 2011, according to a report from the Department of Justice. Al Jazeera America reports that 8,763 cases arose in 2011, up 359 from the year before and nearly 1,000 from 2009. It is unclear whether this spike occurred due to an increase in sex abuse, due to improved reporting of incidents, or to a combination of the two.
Nearly half of the incidents involved prison staff members committing “sexual misconduct,” a broad term which captures sexual harassment as well as sexual relationships between prisoners and prison staff. Sexual relationships between inmates and corrections officers are illegal.
Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003 to more effectively track sexual abuse. However, a culture of harassment, assault, and rape persists in many prisons. A separate Justice Department Report found that at least a third of one Alabama prison’s employees had sex with an inmate. “They live in a sexualized environment with repeated and open sexual behavior including: abusive sexual contact between staff and prisoners, sexualized activity, including a strip show condoned by staff,” the report said.
Female prisoners face a larger risk of being sexually assaulted nationwide. While they make up just seven percent of the federal and state prison population, 33 percent of sexual abuse between staff and inmates included a female prisoner from 2009 to 2011. In cases between just inmates, 22 percent involved a woman.