Sexual Abuse in Prisons: Prioritizing Rehabilitation and Safety

This brief aims to analyze the complex issue of sexual abuse in prison, including but not limited to prison rape and abuse, sexual assault, and both inmate-inmate and inmate-staff sexual conduct. It will propose policy solutions to protect incarcerated people and minimize the effects that sexual abuse has on prisons.

At YIP, nuanced policy briefs emerge from the collaboration of six diverse, nonpartisan students.

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Executive summary

This policy brief examines sexual abuse in prison. Sexual assault, both between inmates and staff and between inmates, runs rampant due to power imbalances and conditions within prisons. This brief will offer comprehensive solutions to remedy this issue and best consider victims within prison systems.


A. Pointed Summary
  • Reports of prison violence vary on gender, age, perpetrator, and facility at hand
  • Sexual abuse is a pressing health issue that affects people both within prison time and after release, causing lasting trauma
B. Relevance

According to the study “Sexual Violence Inside Prisons: Rates of Victimization” in the National Library of Medicine, sexual abuse in prisons increases the risks of communicable disease and trauma. The issue is worse for female inmates, who are assaulted at four times the rate of their male counterparts. Juveniles are also five times as likely to report sexual violence than adults. Sexual abuse impacts inner cities the most, as these are where most prisoners return upon release. The study calls sexual abuse in prisons an “urgent public health issue” that has expansive “health and social consequences.”Inmates, especially women and juveniles, are affected by sexual violence due to its public health implications both in and out of prison.


Sexual abuse and rape are not foreign concepts when it comes to prisons and jails. They have been long standing issues within correctional systems. The history of these abuses reveals systemic failures to protect the rights and dignity of incarcerated individuals, particularly those who are vulnerable due to their gender, age, or other factors. According to a 2001 report from Human Rights Watch, it is estimated that at least 4.3 million inmates had been raped while incarcerated, and this number has proven to only increase. Additionally, marginalized groups, such as women, LGBTQ+ individuals, and racial minorities, are disproportionately affected by these systemic issues. In most recent statistics, it is shown that around 212 women per 1,000 are subjected to sexual violence whereas 43 per 1,000 are affected. Another article states that “female inmates make up only 7% of the total prison population, women represent a disproportionate percentage of sexual assaults — 22% of all inmate-on-inmate sexual assaults and 33% of all staff-on-inmate sexual victimizations.”But what is the underlying cause of it? Sexual violence in prisons is driven by a complex interplay of factors, including power imbalances, overcrowding, and institutional failures in accountability. Within correctional settings, staff members have significant authority over incarcerated individuals, creating opportunities for abuse and exploitation. Overcrowded facilities and understaffing exacerbate these dynamics, making it difficult to adequately supervise and prevent incidents of sexual violence. Additionally, a lack of accountability mechanisms allows perpetrators to act freely. Cultural stigma and fear of reprisals discourage survivors from reporting abuse. 

A. Current Stances

Despite legal and policy reforms, sexual abuse and rape in prisons persist as significant challenges due to factors such as normalization of the crime, overcrowding, inadequate staffing, and a lack of accountability among the predators which contribute to the continued vulnerability of incarcerated individuals to sexual violence. Opinions on sexual violence in prisons vary widely among different stakeholders. For example, human rights advocates condemn it as a violation of prisoners' rights, while some correctional staff may perceive it as rare incidents amid the challenges of managing incarcerated populations. Politicians and other staff such as court judges also view this. During the PREA legislation, every member of Congress irrespective of their political stand voted for the legislation. But, there are still factors which can lead to people not taking this issue seriously.The general public's views may range from seeing it as deserved punishment to recognizing it as a serious human rights issue. Policy makers and legislators may differ in their approaches, some prioritizing punitive measures while others advocate for comprehensive reforms. According to an article from The New York Times, “rape in prisons” jokes in media and entertainment contribute to the normalization of this topic. This has a profound impact on the discourse surrounding sexual violence in prisons. While often dismissed as harmless humor, these jokes contribute to and perpetuate harmful stereotypes and attitudes and also demean and diminish the experiences and  dignity of inmates who are victims. Furthermore, such jokes can reinforce harmful power dynamics within correctional facilities, where sexual violence is used as a tool of control and domination. Additionally, the prevalence of prison rape jokes in pop culture can desensitize the public to the realities of sexual violence behind bars, making it easier to overlook systemic failures in addressing the problem.Overall, effective responses require consideration of diverse perspectives and a commitment to addressing underlying causes and consequences of sexual violence in prisons.

B. Tried Policy

In response to mounting and shocking evidence of sexual violence in prisons, national policies and projects have developed to address these violations. The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) is a notable example of efforts to prevent and respond to sexual abuse in detention settings. In September 2003, former President George W. Bush implemented a PREA, which was a policy implemented to combat rape and sexual assault in prisons. The bill came about after, “experts have conservatively estimated that at least 13% of the inmates in the United States have been sexually assaulted in prison. Many inmates have suffered repeated assaults.” According to the National PREA Resource Center, the purpose is to “provide for the analysis of the incidence and effects of prison rape in federal, state, and local institutions and to provide information, resources, recommendations and funding to protect individuals from prison rape” (Prison Rape Elimination Act, 2003.) However, this act hasn’t shown to improve the situation. In the analysis report, The Prison Rape Elimination Act and the Limits of Liberal Reform, by Lena Palacios, the author states that there is no evidence that this policy has reduced sexual violence. Another important point that Palacios takes up is that PREA has been effective in penalizing consensual sexual activity among prisoners, it has not succeeded in reducing gender-based and sexual violence perpetrated by correctional staff. Additionally, the regulations may have led to increased punishment of incarcerated individuals overall.There are policies in place but their performance and how well they are implemented is still a big issue that needs to be addressed. 

Policy Problem

A. Stakeholders

All inmates, who have the right to be safe from sexually abusive behavior, are the primary stakeholders in this policy. In 2018 alone, correctional administrators disclosed a staggering 27,826 allegations of sexual victimization, which was a 14% increase from 2015. However, women are disproportionately susceptible to this abuse. Although men and women provided similar rates of staff-on-inmate misconduct, almost 82% of female victims reported that they were pressured by staff to engage in sexual activity, in comparison to 55% of male victims. Since 1980, the number of women entering United States prisons has increased by almost 400% – twice the incarceration rate of their male counterparts. Following a process involving extensive interviews and document analysis, the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations found that over the last decade, female prisoners in at least ⅔ of federal prisons holding women had been sexually abused by male employees from the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Certain marginalized groups of female inmates appeared to suffer sexual abuse more often than others; for instance, 4% of female heterosexual inmates reported staff sexual misconduct compared to 8% of female bisexual inmates. As prisoners are entirely reliant on officers to fulfill their basic needs, guards often use manipulation by promising extra rewards in exchange for sexual favors. This power dynamic can be inappropriately exploited for personal benefit.

B. Risks of Indifference

If overlooked, the experiences of individuals who fall victim to sexual violence in prisons can follow them even after their release leading to psychological and behavioral changes in the individuals after they are released back into society. Rape can also lead to several sexually transmitted diseases in prison, “where HIV infection rates are higher than in the general population.” Falling victim to sexual violence and being a sexual perpetrator can lead to fomenting rage and set precedent for future violence by the individual. It can also lead to mental health issues such as depression, increased substance abuse and suicidal ideation both inside and outside prison. 

In addition, newly convicted prisoners or younger prisoners are more prone to falling victim to sexual assault or sexually inappropriate gestures, which can lead to an altered and negative prison experience, further altering their chances of rehabilitation from early on. 

Policy Options

Resolving sexual abuse and rape in prisons and jails requires a multi-faceted and comprehensive solution, including efforts to reduce inmate-to-inmate and staff-to-inmate sexual violence. One of the long-term solutions to reducing sexual violence in prisons could be relevant programs for inmate education and cultivating an environment that practices healthy interaction. Given the often unreported nature of prison rape, it is also important to keep accurate account and documentation of sexual assaults. In addition to inmate education, staff training programs could also help maintain equal standards for both prisoners and prison staff. According to the Prison Rape elimination Act of 2003 by Congree, there is a zero-tolerance policy for “inmate sexual assault and rape.” However, given the still prevailing nature of such issues in prisons, policies to ensure adherence to the Act are extremely crucial. Compliance to PREA by  “correction agencies is voluntary,” leading to virtually invisible effects of enforcing the act. In many cases, PREA has been misused to suppress gender expression therefore, there remains a need for a standard that holds all correctional facilities accountable for adhering to measures meant to protect sexual assault victims and prevent the same. 


In conclusion, sexual abuse in prisons is a nationwide problem, calling for policy redress. It undermines the integrity of facilities, systematic injustice, and reduces public trust in the criminal justice system. The fact that former measures such as the Prison Rape Elimination Act have been implemented, yet sexual abuse continues to pervade demonstrates that current measures in place are not enough. Therefore, policymakers should examine the structural drivers of sexual abuse in prisons and routine practices that make such abuses possible. It is imperative to develop robust oversight mechanisms, enhance transparency in prisons nationwide, and ensure the prosecution of wrongdoers; this promotes an institutional culture that is respectful and ethical, creating an environment that will not tolerate abuse and protect the rights and dignity of all inmates.


The Institute for Youth in Policy wishes to acknowledge Michelle Liou, Joy Park, Nolan Ezzet and other contributors for developing and maintaining the Policy Department within the Institute.


  1. Anonymous, “PREA/Sexual Safety for the Incarcerated,” National Institute of Corrections, n.d.,
  2. Christina Ewig, “The Prison Rape Elimination Act and the Limits of Liberal Reform,” Gender Policy Report, January 6, 2020,
  3. Lena Palacios. “The Prison Rape Elimination Act and the Limits of Liberal Reform.” 2017. Gender Policy Report. February 17, 2017.
  4. National PREA Resource Center. 2023. “Prison Rape Elimination Act | PREA.” 2023.
  5. ‌“No Escape: Male Rape in U.S. Prisons - Summary and Recommendations.”
  6. Roussell, Rodney, Taige Jensen, Jonah M. Kessel, Leah Varjacques, and Japhet Weeks. 2018. “Opinion | the Rape Jokes We Still Laugh At.” The New York Times, July 9, 2018, sec. Opinion.
  7. “Sexual Assault in Prison: Statistics and Facts | Jessica Pride.”
  8. “Strategies to Prevent Prison Rape by Changing the Correctional Culture | National Institute of Justice,” National Institute of Justice, n.d.,
  9. Walton, Reggie B. 2023. “Opinion: Sexual Assault Should Never Be Part of a Prison Term.” CNN. September 17, 2023.
  10. Wolff, Nancy, Cynthia L. Blitz, Jing Shi, Ronet Bachman, and Jane A. Siegel. 2006. “Sexual Violence inside Prisons: Rates of Victimization.” Journal of Urban Health 83 (5): 835–48.

Aarya Chowdhry

Criminal Justice Team Lead

Aarya currently co-leads Criminal Justice Policy in the Policy department and is an Outreach Intern in the Education department at YIP. Fortunate to call Kanpur, India, her hometown, she is an avid reader, learner and poet.

Anagha Nagesh

Criminal Justice Team Lead

Anagha is a current student at John P. Stevens High School in New Jersey. She joined YIP in the Spring 2023 fellowship and now co-leads the Criminal Justice policy team. She hopes to pursue political science or policy in college. In her free time, she likes to sing, act, and travel.

Naomi McKenna

Fall 2023 Fellow

Naomi McKenna is a high school student at Atholton High School in Columbia, Maryland, who will graduate in 2024.

Taylor Luna

Policy Analyst

Emily Tsai

Policy Analyst

Emily is a passionate and inquisitive individual who finds joy in the simple act of reading. As a current junior, she has cultivated her fervor within the realm of gender rights, criminal justice, and public policy.

Alayna Hassan

Alayna Hassan

Alayna is studying natural sciences with a specialization in English, in Sweden. She is very passionate about health, public policy and social justice (among many other topics). In the future, she aspires to merge these interests to help create change for good. In her free time, she love to read, binge-watch sitcoms and doing anything creative.