Prison Rape. Can It Be Stopped?

“I was sentenced to spend 18 months in prison as punishment for my crime. Rape was not part of that punishment,” said Marilyn Shirley in testimony before the Prison Rape Elimination Commission, established by Congress in 2003.

Shirley, a 42-year-old mother and wife, was brutally raped and sodomized by Michael Miller, a senior guard at a federal prison in Texas where she was serving time for an illegal drug sale. Like most women raped in prison, Shirley kept quiet, fearing retribution. But she saved the semen-stained sweat pants she was wearing that night, handed them over to the FBI when she was set free, and now Miller is serving 12 1/2 years in federal prison, a rare punishment for such a crime.

There are more than 200,000 Shirleys in federal, state, local jails and immigration detention centers today, all living in fear of rape from male guards who subject them to random full-body searches and watch them constantly, even in their most private moments in the shower and on the toilet. It is a recipe for rape, said commission member Brenda Smith, a law professor at American University, in a 2008 interview for a Ms. article. Smith said then that only female guards should be allowed to have intimate contact with women inmates.

Once rape happens, the woman is on her own; there is no prison health care or therapy to deal with the trauma of the attack. Help, however, may finally be on the way, thanks to human-rights advocate groups such as Just Detention International (formerly Stop Prison Rape).

Just Detention brought dozens of prison rape victims to Washington in 2003 to tell their stories to senators and representatives. That year, Congress passed the National Prison Rape Elimination Act, the first such law to specifically address rape and sexual assaults in the nation’s prisons and immigration centers. It is a work in progress.

The law requires all places of forced confinement to file annual reports to Congress and the Department of Justice on the numbers and types of sexual crimes reported at their facilities, and to implement national standards designed to prevent rape and all forms of sexual abuse or face the loss of federal funds. The reporting requirement took effect immediately, but it has taken seven years for the standards–developed by a bipartisan commission with input from victims, corrections officials, criminal justice experts and prison-reform advocates–to be ready for public comment.

However there’s little room for comment. The 256-page report [PDF] was released  a year ago and must be finalized by Attorney General Eric Holder by this coming June 23 —but the public comment period didn’t begin until March 10 and will be cut off on May 10. Because of that short time frame and other road blocks against the standards that have been thrown up by cost-concerned corrections officials,  Darby Hickey, communications director for Just Detention, says that Holder’s target date likely won’t be met, denying prisoners the protection they need even longer.

One proposed standard that advocates say will not only be humane but a cost-saver in the long run is opposed by the officials as too costly now:  that the prison provide “ongoing medical and/or mental health evaluation and treatment to all known victims of sexual abuse … [including] follow-up services … ” In response to the objections, Holder has commissioned a “cost projection study” of what the standards will cost–as opposed to a cost-benefit analysis, which was recommended by the commission.

Most prisoners eventually return to their families and their communities. If they are not protected from rape in prison or treated properly if it occurs, they bring suppressed traumas and, often, sexually transmitted diseases home with them. The costs will then be borne, financially and emotionally, by their families, their children and the larger community.

Strangely enough, there is one benefit found in federal prisons that is not always available to women who have been raped in state jails or immigration detention centers: choice in case of pregnancy. Bureau of Prisons’ policy, which follows the Hyde Amendment, will not allow  federal funds to pay for abortion except in cases to save the life of the mother, rape or incest. It can be argued that any woman in a federal prison who becomes pregnant by a male in authority over her is a rape victim, because there is no such thing as “consensual sex” in a prison.

If you have a comment on the proposed regulations, you can submit it here [pdf].

Image courtesy of Flickr user under Creative Commons License.


  1. Excellent article Betty, thank you and Ms. for bringing attention to this issue.

    Readers interested in taking action can also sign JDI’s petition here:

    Or submit public comments via an online form here:

  2. Courtney Young says:

    Hi Betty,

    Thanks for posting on this. I’ve recently been interested in what kind of movements/progress is underway to curtail rape/sexual assault in institutions. I even wrote a post on it for my blog:

    Once again, thanks for posting on such an important issue!

  3. This is such an important issue. I find it particularly interesting that federal funds can be used for abortions for prisoners…it’s so sad that we need something like prison to prove a rape.

    Thanks for this post, Betty!

  4. That was a hetero sexual rape, and although unacceptable as it is, men raping men is even sicker I think. I’m glad she had fortitude to do what she did, but someone needs to address male prisons too. Rape is rape any way about it.

  5. suetiggers says:

    good for her that she was smart enough to do what she did. We need more people to know about this. Rape SHOULD never happen in prison. I’ve never heard a woman make a joke about it, only men. If it happened to them, or their brothers, sisters,etc. I wonder if they’d think it was so funny.

  6. Julie Zerwekh says:

    Yes, we are fortunate at the strength and courage of Marilyn Shirley.
    Corrections officials in the article opposed humanitarian actions, such as questioning the costs-too-much argument. They prefer looking good and in this over patriarchal, extra violent world we are fortunate if we get a change. Violence is normalized. You know my brother used to be in prison and I bet he saw some rapes but he cannot talk about it. I hear from former prisoners on the radio life in their is so just awful and it is a good point the article mentioned that their experience is going to be with them, let them get support! My close family member was pardoned for his multiple misdemeanors, when the prison guard put the head of a gang in his cell and gang put his head in a toilet, leading to a comma. That’s the lighter of violence I see. Shirley’s stand is applauding.

  7. advocate says:

    Although Crim’s underlying point is homophobic and minimizes the trauma of rape for heterosexual women, it is true that male prisoners are at risk as well (from other prisoners as well as the corrections officials.) Just Detention International works to end the sexual abuse of all detainees. There are local agencies (rape crisis centers and other community-based partners) that are working to build relationships with prisons and jails in an effort to meet the needs identified in the report.
    Thank you for this article.

  8. How does the to other countries and how do those countires deal with this devastating problem. Thank you for yout article, long, long overdue.

  9. john rubio says:

    when a lady confese to me . she got rape many times . in federal jail how cant that hapenn in u.s.a they got pay for work not for rape ,,corruption inside jail womans are payin time but why rape them ….and the worse wend they got pregnant

  10. Women guards rape prisoners too, but a lot of data doesn’t count non-penetrating rape or the cavity searches. But the emotional effects of rape aren’t limited by some academic/legalistic definition. Rape is caused by the system of dehumanizing prisoners and a power-over relationship between prisoners and non-prisoners. Prisons recreate in a more concentrated form, the hierarchy and privilege that exists on the outside.

  11. The entire process of being transported and brought into a prison is like nothing you can even put into words. Getting arrested and booked into a local jail is bad enough, however the experience of coming into a prison, a place where thousands of men or women call their home. A home where the 'street' rules. Many of the prison guards, in order to stay in control and get the respect of the inmates find themselves acting and sounding just like the inmates they are there to watch. As sick as this sounds, for many of them, they have quasi-sexual feeling in knowing they have total control over the prisoners – even when they oversee men! We've seen it. Take those same men and put them in with women, and any power trip they are own gains in intensity. Too often, the women are afraid to say anything as they will have to face the wrath of other women for 'taking down' a guard that may have done them favors, even if it's just a small gift of some spice for their food…. It's a nightmare for a woman who is not seeking anything but the quickest path home again.

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