Prison Sexual Assault Essay

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Sexual assault, or rape, within the prison environment is a serious and complex problem. According to the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) prison rape is defined as the carnal knowledge, oral sodomy, sexual assault with an object, or sexual fondling of a person forcibly or against that person’s will. Prison rape also refers to such acts when a person cannot legally consent due to minor status or mental disability or when such acts are achieved through the exploitation of the fear or threat of physical violence or bodily injury. Further, prison rape includes acts perpetrated by inmates on other inmates as well as acts perpetrated by staff on inmates. Acts of rape are reported to occur at all levels of correctional facilities—public and private units, male and female units, jails, and juvenile facilities.

Victims of prison sexual assault are more likely to be new, young inmates who are easily taken advantage of and who do not yet understand the social rules of the prison environment. Although physical force to obtain sex does take place in female units, physical     force occurs more often in male units. Female prison rapists tend to be more subtle in their attacks, using mental and emotional manipulation before sex is forced. Correctional staff members have also been found to be involved in sexually assaulting inmates. If brought to the attention of correctional administrators, these officers will usually lose their jobs; however, much like violence against inmate perpetrators, formal charges are rarely filed against them.

Overcrowding, poor surveillance, and inadequate classification are only a few of the factors that contribute to prison rape. Recognition of the problem is another factor that hinders the detection and prosecution of sexual assault incidents. The many consensual relationships occurring behind prison walls is an impediment to recognition as well as the fact that a number of inmates are either unwilling to report victimization or do not realize they have been sexually assaulted. Due to PREA, programs are now in place to educate inmates on how to recognize and report sexual assault. Other reasons inmates have given as to why victims might be unwilling to report sexual assault include embarrassment, fear of retaliation by the perpetrator or other inmates, and fear of being placed in protective custody. The ultimate lack of prosecution of perpetrators of prison rape may also be a reason such activities continue.

Prison rape has a tremendous impact both on the prison environment and on society at large. The spread of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS, makes prison sexual assault a public health concern as most of the offenders now incarcerated will be released back into society, some not realizing they are infected. Prison sexual assault may also increase violence within the prison and impose physical and psychological effects on inmates who have been victimized. These effects often further hinder their reintegration into society once released.


  1. Mariner, J. (2001). No escape: Male rape in U.S. prisons. New York: Human Rights Watch.
  2. National Institute of Corrections Information Center. (2004). Annotated bibliography on prison rape/inmate sexual assault. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.

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