A Justice Department study shows that allegations of sex abuse in U.S. prisons and jails is on the rise, with corrections officers responsible for 50% of reported cases.  However, prosecution is extremely rare.  The report released Thursday by the Bureau of Justice Statistics uses data collected by correctional administrators representing all of the nation’s federal and state prisons as well as many county jails.  The report shows that administrators logged more than 24,000 reports of abuse between 2009 and 2011, up 11% from the previous report, which covered from 2007 to 2008.  It is unclear whether the increase is the result of better reporting standards or an actual rise.

Allen Beck, the Justice Department statistician who authored the reports, told ProPublica that abuse allegations might be increasing because of growing awareness of the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act.

“It’s a matter of speculation, but certainly there’s been a considerable effort to inform staff about the dangers of sexual misconduct…” said Beck.

The report also shows a growing proportion of allegations being dismissed by prison officials as “unsubstantiated.”  Only about 10% of abuse allegations are deemed “substantiated”.  But in even less cases, enough evidence is found to prove sexual abuse and when a correctional officer is responsible, they rarely face prosecution.  While most prison staff involved in sexual misconduct lose their job at the facility, fewer than 50% are referred for prosecution, and only 1% are actually convicted.

Roughly one-third of staff caught abusing prisoners are allowed to resign, meaning that there’s no public record and nothing to prevent them from working at another correctional institute.

“These findings point to a level of impunity in our prisons and jails that is simply unacceptable,” said Lovisa Stannow, Executive Director of Just Detention International, a prisoner advocacy group in California, “When corrections agencies don’t punish or choose to ignore sexual abuse committed by staff members— people who are paid by our tax dollars to keep inmates safe— they support criminal behavior.”

The lack of punishment may deter more inmates from reporting their abuse.  When the Justice Department talks to inmates directly, as opposed to administrators, the reports of abuse increase.  A 2013 survey of inmates estimated 80,000 sexually victimized prisoners either by other inmates or staff members over a two-year period.  That is roughly 5 times higher than incidents reported to administrators.

“Inmates don’t report because of the way the institution handles these complaints: they’re afraid…the staff will retaliate,” said Kim Shayo Buchanan, a law professor at the University of Southern California who studies the issue, “Even if you report and they believe you, which they…won’t, the most likely thing to happen is that the person will be suspended…”

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