Sex Between Prison Guards, Inmates Often Ignored

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Many states offer little protection for inmates who become sexual targets for prison guards, Amnesty International notes. Even states that prohibit such activity fail to prosecute most violations.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Rape and assault are major problems facing prison inmates, especially female inmates, and especially by male guards. Yet according to a new report released today by Amnesty International, many states lag far behind in passing laws to protect female prisoners from sexual assault.

NPR's Laura Sullivan reports.

LAURA SULLIVAN reporting:

Rape is a crime inside or outside prison. But when it comes to sex between inmates and prison guards, in many states the line can be blurry. That's the finding of the human rights group, Amnesty International.

Mr. WILLIAM SCHULZ (Director, Amnesty International): This is fundamentally something that ought not to be allowed under any circumstances.

SULLIVAN: Bill Schulz is the director of Amnesty International.

In the group's new report, researchers discovered that only seven states have laws strong enough to protect women inmates from sexual advances by guards. Three states, Colorado, Wyoming, and New Hampshire, can actually prosecute the woman for having sex, even if the officer's advances were unwanted.

In four states, Arizona, California, Delaware, and Nevada, if the correctional officer says the sex was consensual, it's not a crime. And Vermont has no law prohibiting guards from having sexual relations with prisoners.

Mr. SCHULZ: The number of women who are serving life sentences is infinitesimal. These women are going to be reintroduced to our society.

If, in addition to all of the problems they've already had, they come out of prison having been treated in this fashion, even raped and assaulted, you can imagine that we are multiplying our problems as a society heedlessly and unnecessarily.

SULLIVAN: Rape is not just a problem for women prisoners. According to a recent Justice Department survey, thousands of men are raped in prison each year as well, most of them by other inmates.

But advocates say the problem with guards is particularly acute in women's facilities, because most correctional officers are male. And in some cases, women inmates invite the contact.

Professor CINDY STRUCKMAN-JOHNSON (Psychology, University of South Dakota): They may actually be doing it to get benefits, or what they think to be benefits--better treatment, better food, and more privileges. And so there may be that draw for them.

SULLIVAN: University of South Dakota professor Cindy Struckman-Johnson has studied sexual coercion in prison for the past decade. She's a member of the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission.

She says no matter how the relationships begin, they never end well.

Professor STRUCKMAN-JOHNSON: Any situation when one person holds complete authority over another, especially in prison, where inmates have no redress for any problems that happen, the staff person can completely control their lives, and what may start out as a romance or a sexual attraction even a friendship can quickly turn into a master-slave relationship.

SULLIVAN: Even in states that do have laws prohibiting sexual contact between officers and inmates, the Justice Department found most violations go un-prosecuted.

A report last year by the Inspector General's Office found that few state prosecutors will take on cases involving prisoner rape. The cases are difficult, often it's the guard's word against the inmate's, and the punishments are lenient. The Office found that even in the few federal cases that were prosecuted, 75 percent of the correctional officers received only probation.

Mr. SCHULZ: There is still a long way to go.

SULLIVAN: Amnesty International's Bill Schulz says a good place to start in many states would be better legislation.

Laura Sullivan, NPR News.

INSKEEP: You're listening to NPR News.

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