SAN FRANCISCO — A bitterly disputed, government-sponsored study has concluded that rape and sexual assault behind bars may be rampant in movies and books but are rare in real life.
When inmates have sex, it is usually by choice, and often engaged in as a way to win protection or privileges, said Mark Fleisher, a cultural anthropologist who specializes in prisons and crime at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
He said inmates who cry rape are usually lying and looking for a transfer, money or publicity.
“Inmates say it may happen, but the conditions under which it happens are rare,” Fleisher said. “It is unlikely all the stars are going to align properly for this to happen, particularly in prisons today. You’re going to get caught.”
The two-year study, commissioned by the U.S. Justice Department for $939,233, has come under withering attack from other experts. The department has not endorsed the study, saying Fleisher has yet to turn over his data for closer examination.
“To take the position that it’s not a problem and prisons are safe places is asinine,” said Reggie B. Walton, a federal judge and chairman of the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, set up under a 2003 federal law. He said Fleisher’s conclusions are “totally inconsistent” with what he has learned during 30 years in the criminal justice system.
Research methods questioned
Cindy Struckman-Johnson, professor of psychology at the University of South Dakota and one of nine commission members, said Fleisher’s 155-page study is not in scientific form. She said there is no literature review, no raw data, and no in-depth explanation of his subjects or research methods.
Fleisher said he spent more than 700 hours interviewing 564 randomly chosen inmates at dozens of institutions across the country. He said he never met anyone who claimed to be a victim of sexual violence.
He said his findings were no surprise to him, though he admitted his conclusion “flies in the face of what everyone believes.”
Fleisher said he found that inmates’ sexual activity is not “routinely or overwhelmingly violent or aggressive” and sex is “engaged in by men and women who choose it.” In his report, he suggested that what outsiders see as rape is regarded differently by inmates.
“Prison rape worldview doesn’t interpret sexual pressure as coercion,” he wrote. “Rather, sexual pressure ushers, guides or shepherds the process of sexual awakening.”
Justice Dept.: Report not finished
Justice Department spokeswoman Catherine Sanders said Fleisher’s report is being peer-reviewed and is not considered finished. However, Fleisher co-wrote an article about it in The Criminologist, the American Society of Criminology’s newsletter.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Justice Department official familiar with the findings said that the department is trying to determine whether the conclusions are supported by the data, but that Fleisher has not shown his evidence to anyone.
Lovisa Stannow, co-director of Los Angeles-based advocacy group Stop Prisoner Rape, called Fleisher’s conclusions offensive.
“We communicate with survivors literally every single day,” she said. “He takes issue with the use of the term rape. Because it wasn’t used by the prisoners he interviewed doesn’t mean rape didn’t happen. There is an objective truth to sexual violence regardless of what it’s called.”
Protective law enacted by Bush
The Prison Rape Elimination Act, signed into law by President Bush to create the investigatory commission and establish a national zero-tolerance policy for sexual assaults behind bars, called prison rape an epidemic that largely goes unacknowledged and unreported. The law said experts have conservatively estimated that at least 13 percent of U.S. prison inmates have been sexually assaulted, and the total number in the past 20 years is probably more than 1 million.
In July, the Bureau of Justice Statistics said there were 3.15 inmate complaints of sexual violence per 1,000 prisoners in 2004.
The commission held public hearings to take testimony from lawmakers, prison officials and former inmates who offered graphic descriptions of abuse.
T.J. Parsell, 45, said he was sent to a Michigan prison for armed robbery at 17. On his first day, he said, his drink was spiked and he was raped by four inmates.
“When they were done, they flipped a coin to see which one I belonged to,” said Parsell, board president for Stop Prisoner Rape. He said the corrections industry “would like nothing more than for the problem to get minimized so it can get put away for another 50 years.”
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