Behind Bars: Sexual Violence in the U.S. Prison System

In January of 2018, Dr. Larry Nassar, world-renowned sport’s physician who’s treated some of America’s most talented gymnasts, waited. The slight, scrawny, husband and father of three, stood behind a table, arms shackled together in a bright orange jumpsuit, and waited to hear his fate. Would he be treated with mercy, or would years of abusing young women finally catch up with him? He waited, his survivors waited, and the world waited with them.  

The answer was no, he wouldn’t. On January 24th, Nassar was sentenced to 40-175 years in prison after decades of sexual abuse against his patients. As his accusers slowly but mightily stepped forward and increased in numbers, ultimately reaching 265 people, the public grew more and more disgusted with Nassar. But this was more than just another unfathomable molestation case, because it brought to light yet another ugly truth of American life and society. As is predictable, whenever there is a high-profile rape case, instead of applauding the courage of the survivors, people expressed their desire for Nassar to be raped himself.

Even the judge on the case, Rosemarie Aquilina, was guilty of this, stating in Nassar’s final sentencing, “Our constitution does not allow for cruel and unusual punishment. If it did, I have to say, I might allow what he did to all of these beautiful souls—these young women in their childhood—I would allow someone or many people to do to him what he did to others.” While many found no issue with her statement, it was even placed on a list of her “incredible quotes” by USA Today, some were outraged, claiming that her sharing the hope that Nassar be sexually assaulted when he enters the prison system weakens the same exact fight against sexual violence she claims to defend.

Every year, an estimated 200,000 men and women are sexually violated while in U.S. prisons. Still, it's an issue that's rarely discussed.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 200,000 men and women are raped each year while incarcerated in American prisons. People being sent in for rehabilitation are coming out sexually violated. These outrageously high numbers are even more shocking considering that, in 2003, the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) was put into effect. Passed unanimously by Congress, the bill was intended to decrease the number of prisoners sexually violated by a number of new resources. First, a “zero-tolerance” policy was implemented, meaning that anyone who raped someone while in prison would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. PREA also made it a requirement for prison staff to be trained on how to detect, prevent, and respond to sexual abuse and harassment. This was all in an effort to create a “culture of sexual safety.”

Another resource PREA created was “Screening for Risk of Sexual Victimization and Abusiveness.” This required all inmates, detainees, and residents to be screened for risk of being sexually abused or sexually abusive towards others. Screening was set up to keep individuals at a high risk of victimization away from those who were at a high risk to victimize others.

The 1992 Supreme Court case of Farmer v. Brennan made these implementations necessary. When Dee Farmer, a black trans woman, was incarcerated in a male-only population prison, she was repeatedly raped and beaten by the other inmates. She subsequently contracted HIV from the assault. Farmer’s lawyers argued that it was the responsibility of the prison to know she was at high risk of being sexually assaulted if housed with men only. They did know this, Farmer claimed, but they didn’t care and put her there anyway. This case acted as a landmark decision, as it made prison officials who were “deliberately indifferent” to violence endured by prisoners liable under the 8th Amendment of the Constitution because they “knew that the penitentiary had a violent environment and a history of inmate assaults and that petitioner would be particularly vulnerable to sexual attack” (law.cornell.edu).

There’s one main problem with PREA: it is not mandatory for states to follow its rules; senators can choose whether or not to comply with its guidelines. Currently, only two states, New Jersey and New Hampshire, are in complete accordance with PREA standards. Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Nebraska, Texas and Utah, have opted out completely and refuse to comply whatsoever. In doing so, they forfeit federal grant money from the Department of Justice (DOJ). The amount they give up, however, is low, only 5% of their total DOJ receivings. Many states claim that cross-gender viewing requirements (male guards aren’t allowed to see women undress and vice versa) would mandate them to hire more guards to even out the workforce, and they’re not entirely wrong. Workplace equity considerations require that there be equal numbers of male and female guards in a facility, even if the facility itself is not all female or male inmates. So, if they’re in need of more female guards, they’re also required to hire more male guards that they may not need.

Nicknamed the “Connecticut Prison Princess” Chandra Bozelko served over six years in a Connecticut maximum security prison on charges of identity theft and embezzlement. Less than a year into her sentence, Bozelko was raped by a prison guard. When the abuse first occurred, Bozelko was at risk of being put into solitary confinement, and the thought terrified her. She feared she would be abused worse or even killed in isolation, so she reported the rape to another guard in “attempt at protection from further harm” (Personal Interview with Bozelko). But that’s not what happened. The officer ignored her cries and did nothing to vindicate the situation. It wasn’t until she informed a prison nurse of the abuse that a senior officer was told. When state police arrived to further investigate, Bozelko felt as though she couldn’t talk about what happened due to the harassment she’d begun receiving from other guards and inmates. She denied a rape kit out of fear of possible retribution. Not even two months later, police dropped the investigation, as no “sufficient evidence” could be found.

Chandra Bozelko served over six years in a Connecticut prison. She is now a vocal advocate for justice reform and is open about her experiences of abuse while incarcerated.

While incarcerated, Bozelko published a book of poetry, Up the River: An Anthology, detailing her time in prison and the abuse she endured. She currently guest writes for Huffington Post, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Forbes, and more. In an interview I held with her, PREA was one topic that came up more often than not. Logically, Bozelko understands why states refuse to comply, but she believes that the amount of money they forfeit with their refusal isn’t enough. “The financial losses to states that don’t comply is too little.” She also has ideas on how to make these states adhere to PREA regulations. “If the DOJ were to send in federal marshals to supervise state and local facilities in states that won’t enforce PREA, you’d see those holdout states get on board real quick.”

Bozelko and I also found ourselves discussing the ways in which prison sexual assault stories are continually invalidated and disregarded, the #MeToo movement being just one example of this. “Intersectional feminism has failed, in my opinion, to include justice-involved women explicitly and, in doing so, has carved us out of conversations and protections.” She explains how she’s found that men are more often sympathetic to what she’s been through than women, and the reason, or so she believes, all has to do with credibility.  “The general feminist movement doesn’t want to claim us, and I think this is because they are taking on a group of people whose credibility is automatically suspect in society’s eyes. Credibility is at the heart of #metoo. Now with this new movement, women have corrected the lost credibility that victims had and I think the leaders of the movement just don’t want to diminish their newly established lead.” Because being incarcerated automatically makes your credibility questionable, the #MeToo movement and other feminist discourses aren’t willing to put everything on the line to include a minority of people. But, as Bozelko said, doing this consequently diminishes the experiences of prison sexual assault survivors.

No matter how many people continue to be abused while in prison, it’s most likely never going to be a front-page issue. This is because a large number of people believe that it comes with the territory of incarceration, one example being this Deadspin article from June, 2011. But to think this way invalidates the experiences of so many people behind bars. At least 95% of inmates in state prisons will be released back into their communities, so it’s time to stop acting as though what happens in prison stays in prison, because it doesn't. What they endure affects us, too. We as a society need to come together and support those who have been assaulted while incarcerated, as well as take a closer look at the systemic issues that lead to this kind of sexual violence.