Guest Writings
09/06/04 Commentary: Is Sexual Abuse in Iraq Surprising?

From: Stop Prisoner Rape

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has called the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison ìun-American.î Surely this description resonates with people across the United States who are appalled by the pictures and reports of inhumane abuses, many of which are sexual in nature.

But, as we puzzle over this as a nation, one phenomenon that must be examined is the rampant sexual abuse that has flourished in U.S. prisons for decades. When viewed through this lens, the abuse in Iraq ñ while still unconscionable ñ is much less surprising.

The new reports from Iraq include allegations that coalition soldiers threatened male prisoners with rape, sodomized a detainee with an object, forced a naked, hooded detainee to masturbate, posed groups of naked prisoners in human pyramids, left male prisoners in cells naked or wearing womenís underwear, and forced one detainee to simulate oral sex with another detainee.

These are troubling events, but they didnít happen by accident. The choice to use sexually charged forms of abuse was not random or careless. More likely, it was humiliation by design. Those who perpetrate this kind of abuse are undeniably aware of the shame these acts induce, as far too many U.S. prisoners understand.

Approximately one in five male inmates in the United States has faced pressured or forced sexual contact in custody, according to studies by researchers such as Cindy Struckman-Johnson at the University of South Dakota. One in 10 has been raped. For women, the rates of sexual assault are as high as one in four in the worst facilities.

This form of abuse reared its ugly head when police officers sodomized Abner Louima in a New York stationhouse bathroom; when a Wisconsin corrections officer impregnated mentally ill inmate Jackie Noyes; and when corrections staff knowingly taunted Roderick Johnson who was raped and prostituted by Texas prison gangs.

Sexual abuse is uniquely dehumanizing, and the psychological consequences can hardly be underestimated. Feelings of self-hate are common, and victims often hesitate to report the abuse in order to avoid the stigma that comes with victimization.

In particular, many male victims of sexual violence report feeling that their masculinity has been compromised. Often, victims blame themselves and ñ even in impossible circumstances ñ believe that they somehow should have prevented it. Long-term psychological consequences may include post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, and suicide.

With this pattern of abuse so common at home, itís not surprising that the most senior of the individuals accused of abusing Iraqi detainees, Staff Sergeant Ivan Frederick II, was himself a six-year veteran of the Virginia Department of Corrections.

Some observers have noted that nudity, forced masturbation and humiliating sexual positions are particularly unacceptable in the Islamic world. And it is certainly important to take cultural differences into account. But sexual abuse is universally appalling, and the similarity to what many U.S. prisoners routinely undergo is noteworthy.

Whether it happens in Iraq or in the U.S., sexual abuse is a form of torture employed to uniquely degrade and humiliate prisoners, people who are virtually helpless to prevent it. Challenging the culture that allows this brutality to persist will help ensure that the label ìun-Americanî rings true.


The Basics on Rape Behind Bars

Prisoner rape is a problem that: …affects large numbers of men, women, and youthÖ

A recent study of prisons in four Midwestern states found that approximately one in five male inmates reported a pressured or forced sex incident while incarcerated. About one in ten male inmates reported that that they had been raped.1

Rates for women, who are most likely to be abused by male staff members, vary greatly among institutions. In one facility, 27 percent of women reported a pressured or forced sex incident, while in another facility, seven percent of women reported sexual abuse.2

Youth in detention are also extremely vulnerable to abuse. Research has shown that juveniles incarcerated with adults are five times more likely to report being victims of sexual assault than youth in juvenile facilities,3 and the suicide rate of juveniles in adult jails is 7.7 times higher than that of juvenile detention centers. As states try growing numbers of juveniles as adults, the risk of sexual abuse increases.

Overcrowding and insufficient staffing are key contributors to prisoner rape, and recent changes in criminal justice policy have exacerbated the problem by swelling prison and jail populations beyond capacity. More than 2 million people are now serving time in the United States,4 and millions more pass through the criminal justice system every year. In 1998, for example, 11.5 million inmates were released from jails and prisons.5 One out of every 140 people in the United States is now behind bars, the highest rate of any nation.

The United States also holds approximately 180,000 to 200,000 people per year in immigration detention.6 Of those detained every year, 5,000 are unaccompanied children.7 These individuals, many of whom have not been charged with any crime,8 are vulnerable to sexual abuse from detention officers and fellow detainees.

…causes serious physical and psychological harmÖ

Following an incident of rape, victims may experience vaginal or rectal bleeding, soreness and bruising (and much worse in the case of violent attacks), insomnia, nausea, shock, disbelief, withdrawal, anger, shame, guilt, and humiliation. Long term consequences may include post traumatic stress disorder, rape trauma syndrome, ongoing fear, nightmares, flashbacks, self-hatred, substance abuse, anxiety, depression, and suicide.9

Rates of HIV are five to ten times as high inside of prison as outside,10 making forced sex ñ where prevention methods are virtually nonexistent ñ a deadly proposition. Though reliable statistics are unavailable, inmates have contracted HIV through prisoner rape, a phenomenon that has been described as “an un-adjudicated death sentence.” Sexual assault behind bars can also spread other sexually transmissible diseases, such as hepatitis A and B, syphilis, and gonorrhea.11

In addition to the possibility of disease exposure that both male and female rape victims experience, female inmates have been impregnated as a result of staff sexual misconduct. Some of these women have then been further subjected to inappropriate segregation and denial of adequate healthcare services.12

Ultimately, 95 percent of all inmates are eventually released.13 Upon release, male prisoner rape survivors may bring with them emotional scars and learned violent behavior that continue the cycle of harm. Feelings of rage can be suppressed until release, when survivors may engage in violent, antisocial behavior and the aggressive assertion of their masculinity, including the commission of rape on others.

Many survivors of prisoner rape blame themselves. Male survivors often feel that they have been stripped of their “manhood.” The tendency of perpetrators to feminize their victims and the general use of misleading terms such as “homosexual rape” cause many heterosexual men to feel that their sexuality has been compromised. Gay survivors may blame their sexual orientation for the rape.

…targets the vulnerableÖ

Prisoner rape victims are typically among the most vulnerable members of the population in custody. Male victims are often young, nonviolent, first-time offenders who are small, weak, shy, gay or effeminate, and inexperienced in the ways of prison life.14 Studies suggest that a typical male prison rapist chooses a victim on the basis of ìthe weakness and inability of the victim to defend himself.î15

Believing they have no choice, some male prisoners consent to sexual acts to avoid violence. For others, gang rape and other brutal assaults have left them beaten, bloodied, and in rare cases, dead. Often, those who live through the experience are marked as targets for further attacks, eventually forcing victims to accept long term sexual enslavement in order to survive. Treated like the perpetrator's property, the victim may be forced into servitude that includes prostitution arrangements with other male prisoners.16

Among women behind bars, young and mentally ill inmates and first-time offenders are particularly vulnerable to sexual assault by male staff.17 Male custodial officials have vaginally, anally, and orally raped female prisoners and have abused their authority by exchanging goods and privileges for sex. Male corrections officers are often allowed to watch female inmates when they are dressing, showering, or using the toilet, and some regularly engage in verbal degradation and harassment of women prisoners. Women also report groping and other sexual abuse by male staff during pat frisks and searches.18

…violates international, U.S., and state lawsÖ

Prisoner rape is a violation of international human rights law that meets the definition of torture: the intentional infliction of severe physical or mental pain or suffering for an illicit purpose and committed, consented, or acquiesced to by public officials. The rape of persons in detention has been classified as torture by several international bodies. In addition, the U.S. has ratified treaties that prohibit torture, slavery, and cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment or punishment.19

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that prisoner rape is a violation of the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment in the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.20

All fifty states and the District of Columbia criminalize rape and sexual assault, and all but four states have statutes addressing the sexual abuse of inmates by prison staff.21

…but has been allowed to continue.

In short, the response to prisoner rape has been indifferent and irresponsible. Reporting procedures, where they exist, are often ineffectual, and complaints by prisoners about sexual assault are routinely ignored by prison staff and government authorities.22

Prisoner rape occurs most easily when no one is around to see or hear, particularly at night and in hidden areas that are difficult to monitor.23 Inmates complain about a lack of vigilance, even reporting that screams for help have gone unanswered.

Punishment for prisoner rape is rare.24 Few public prosecutors concern themselves with crimes against inmates, and instead leave such problems to the discretion of prison authorities. As a result, perpetrators of prisoner rape seldom face charges. Staff members who sexually abuse inmates are rarely held accountable, facing only light administrative sanctions, if any. In fact, some female inmates have reported retaliation from corrections officers against whom reports of sexual misconduct have been lodged.

Prisoner rape has been used in some cases as a tool to punish inmates for misbehavior. Male inmates have testified that they were forced into cells with known sexual predators as a form of punishment for unrelated misconduct.25

Potential victims of prisoner rape are routinely separated from the rest of the prison population in administrative segregation (similar to solitary confinement) as a putative solution to prisoner rape. Such isolation is extremely difficult to endure, discourages reports of abuse, and effectively punishes victims.

Prisoner rape also costs taxpayers dearly in the form of higher rates of recidivism and re-incarceration, increased violence, higher rates of substance abuse, lawsuits brought by victims, mental health services, and medical care, including treatment for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.26 Yet these high costs have failed to inspire most facilities to implement even the most basic measures to address the problem.


[1] Cindy Struckman-Johnson & David Struckman-Johnson, Sexual Coercion Rates in Seven Midwestern Prisons for Men, 80 The Prison Journal 379 (2000), available at .

[2] Cindy Struckman-Johnson & David Struckman-Johnson, Summary of Sexual Coercion Data, Address At ìNot Part of the Penalty: Ending Prisoner Rapeî (Oct. 19, 2001), in Sexual Coercion Rates in Seven Midwestern Prisons for Men, 80 The Prison Journal 379 (2000), available at .

[3] Martin Forst et al., Youth in Prisons and Training Schools: Perceptions and Consequences of the Treatment-Custody Dichotomy, 2 Juv. & Fam. Ct. J. 9 (1989).

[4] U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Nationís Prison and Jail Population Exceeds 2 Million Inmates for First Time (April 6, 2003), available at (last visited June 12, 2003).

[5] National Commission on Correctional Health Care, The Health Status of Soon-to-be-Released Inmates: A Report to Congress 2 (May 2002), available at (last visited April 15, 2003).

[6] In fiscal year 2000, the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service ìadmitted more than 188,000 aliens into detention.î A Review of Department of Justice Immigration Detention Policies, Hearing Before the House Comm. on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims, 106th Cong. 1 (2001) (statement of Joseph Green, Acting Deputy Executive Associate Commissioner for Field Operations and Edward McElroy, District Director, New York, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service) available at (last visited August 6, 2003). Wendy Young, director of government relations and U.S. Programs for the Womenís Commission for Refugee Women, reported that ìOn any given day, the INS has approximately 20,000 individuals in detention, for an annual total of over 200,000.î Immigration and Asylum, Hearing Before the Senate Comm. on the Judiciary, 106th Cong. 3 (2001) (statement of Wendy Young).

[7] Guinean Immigrant in Custody is a Minor, Agency Concedes, N.Y. Times, April 12, 2002.

[8] The INS reported that on any given day, thirty-five percent of the individuals it detained faced no criminal charges. Statement of Joseph Green and Edward McElroy, 1, supra note 6.

[9] Robert W. Dumond & Doris A. Dumond, The Treatment of Sexual Assault Victims, in Prison Sex: Practice & Policy 82 (Christopher Hensley ed., Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 2002).

[10] Statistics on HIV rates in custody vary. The U.S. Department of Justice reported in 1999 that ìThe overall rate of confirmed AIDS among the Nation's prison population (0.60%) was 5 times the rate in the U.S. general population (0.12%).î See Other studies report a prison HIV and AIDS rate 10 times higher than the general population. See Carol Polych & Don Sabo, SentenceóDeath by Lethal Infection: IV-Drug Use and Infectious Disease Transmission in North American Prisons, in Prison Masculinities 174 (Don Sabo et al. eds., Temple University Press, 2001) and Robert W. Dumond & Doris A. Dumond, The Treatment of Sexual Assault Victims, in Prison Sex: Practice & Policy 78 (Christopher Hensley ed., Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 2002).

[11] Stop Prisoner Rape, Prisoner Rape Spreads Disease ñ Inside and Outside of Prison, available at (last visited June 17, 2003).

[12] See, for example, Inmate Punished After Reporting Sex, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Feb. 2, 2003, available at (last visited June 16, 2003).

[13] Terry Kupers, M.D., Prison Madness xxii (Jossey-Bass, Inc., Publishers 1999).

[14] No Escape: Male Rape in U.S. Prisons (Human Rights Watch), April 2001, at 63.

[15] Christopher D. Man & John P. Cronan, Forecasting Sexual Abuse in Prisons: The Prison Subculture of Masculinity as a Backdrop for ìDeliberate Indifferenceî, 92 J. Crim L. & Criminology 153 (Fall 2001/ Winter 2002).

[16] Ibid.

[17] Nowhere to Hide: Retaliation Against Women in Michigan State Prisons (Human Rights Watch), 1998, available at (last visited April 15, 2002).

[18] No Escape: Male Rape in U.S. Prisons (Human Rights Watch), April 2001.

[19] The right to be free from ìcruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishmentî is asserted by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, adopted 16 Dec. 1966, entered into force 23 Mar. 1976., 999 U.N.T.S. 171., as well as by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted 10 Dec. 1948, G.A. Res. 217A (III), UN Doc. A/810, at 71 (1948). The infliction of pain ìby or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public officialî is prohibited by the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, adopted 10 Dec. 1984, entered into force 28 June 1987, G.A. Res. 39/46, 39 UN GAOR, Supp. (No. 51), UN Doc. A/39/51, at 197 (1984).

[20] Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825 (1994).

[21] For details on laws on custodial sexual misconduct, visit (last visited June 16, 2003).

[22] No Escape: Male Rape in U.S. Prisons (Human Rights Watch), April 2001, at 151.

[23] See, for example, Gabriel London, The Rules of the Game: Prison Rape and Reform, available at (last visited June 16, 2003).

[24] A Human Rights Watch study of male rape in prison found a ìdecidedly laissez faire approach to the problemî to be common in many corrections departments. ìIn too many institutions,î the report concluded, ìprevention measures are meager and effective punishment of abuses is rare.î No Escape: Male Rape in U.S. Prisons (Human Rights Watch), April 2001, at 143.

[25]See, for example, Christian Parenti, Rape as a Disciplinary Tactic, Salon, Aug. 23, 1999, available at (last visited June 16, 2003).

[26] Stop Prisoner Rape, Society Pays the Cost for Prisoner Rape, available at (last visited July 31, 2003).

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