Corrections officers show progressive attitudes about jail sexual assaults

Published: June 24 2009

Category:Florida, Research

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Far from being insensitive to the plight of their prisoners, correctional officers overwhelmingly believe they must do everything possible to prevent sexual assaults behind bars, a new University of Florida study finds.

And, contrary to popular belief, the guards also show sympathy to the plight of gay men who are targets of sexual assault, said Carrie Cook, who did the research for her doctoral degree in the criminology, law and society department at UF.

“There’s a perception that corrections officers are anti-inmate and not very progressive, but results from my study directly rebut that, perhaps partly because some training programs now incorporate information about HIV and sexually transmitted diseases,” she said

The issue is important because jails and prisons have high incidences of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, which are likely to spread into the community, Cook said. More than 90 percent of people who serve time in state and federal prisons are eventually released and jail populations turn over 15 times in one year on average, she said.

Although research has looked at sexual assaults in prisons, little has been done in jails where Cook did her study. Jails have 17 times as many inmates admitted as prisons and they are released more quickly into the community — jail time rarely exceeds a year — with those inmates who are infected bringing an increased risk to community health.

“We rarely lock up somebody and keep them there forever, so what happens to people in that environment is not going to stay there,” she said.

University of South Dakota psychology professor Cindy Struckman-Johnson, an expert on issues related to prison rape, said Cook’s study “suggests that there may be a sea change in how security officers perceive and respond to the problem of inmate rape.” Surveys conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics for the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 indicated that sexual abuse of inmates was a serious problem in prisons and jails, and research from the 1990s shows many correctional officers in state prisons questioned the credibility of inmates who reported being raped in prison, particularly those who were gay or bisexual, she said.

The strongest point of agreement among the officers surveyed was that 96 percent said they should do everything in their power to protect their wards against sexual assault, and 95 percent say they should encourage inmates to report these crimes.

The study also found that corrections officers consider gay men or those with feminine qualities less responsible for rape than inmates who previously consented to sex or those who take money or cigarettes in exchange for sex, Cook said.

Eighty-eight percent disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement that homosexual inmates get what they deserve if they are raped in jail. Otherwise, the proportion of those disagreeing or strongly disagreeing was 76 percent for inmates who had taken money or cigarettes in exchange for consensual sex and 74 percent who had previously consented to sex in jail.

“That officers find inmates who are homosexual or who act feminine most credible indicates they almost expect these people to be targeted in a correctional setting,” she said.

The lowest response from officers concerned whether the officers should talk with inmates about the risks of being sexually assaulted, Cook said. Only 59 percent said they thought it was their place to do so, suggesting they believe it is a more appropriate role for counselors, she said.

“It shows they’re more likely to blame inmates for what they do in jail than who they are,” Cook said.

In many ways, perceptions of inmate credibility mirror attitudes about female rape victims in the community at large, Cook said. Women who are known to have had previous relationships with their perpetrators, for example, are often seen as less believable, she said.

“I think that many scholars, including myself, would argue that it’s very difficult to call any sexual acts consensual in a correctional environment,” she said. “An inmate may agree to have sex with an inmate who offers physical protection from other inmates, or there could be other underlying circumstances.”

No reliable statistics are available for the number of rapes in prisons and jails because inmates — particularly men — are reluctant to report it, she said.

“Sexual assault really targets inmates for further attacks,” she said. “Typically in a correctional environment, there are the powerful and the weak. Once someone is preyed upon, they become a successful target and it opens the door for others to prey upon them.”


Cathy Keen
Carrie Cook,, 478-452-7830

Category:Florida, Research