Inmate sexual assault is undeniably a problem, if only because of the resulting trauma (Wolff & Shi, 2009) and physical injuries to victims (Guerino & Beck, 2011). Austin et al. (2006) conducted a comprehensive, federally funded, mixed methods study analyzing inmate sexual assaults across the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) prison system. Austin et al.’s report produced findings related to offender and victim differences, overall statewide sexual assault trends, and qualitative and structural factors in prisons that were associated with increased or decreased likelihood of sexual assault. More than 15 years have passed since the most recent data studied by Austin et al. (2006), yet no follow up research is available for comparison to Austin et al.’s (2006) findings. Such research could assist TDCJ in evaluating its efforts toward reducing sexual assault in prison and identifying other factors that may relate to sexual assault in Texas prisons.
This quantitative descriptive study compiles data from the TDCJ yearly Safe Prisons/PREA Program Reports (TDCJ, n.d.) to identify the prominence of sexual assault complaints based on the area within the facility. Data from 2010 to 2017 were compiled and used for comparison against Austin et al.’s (2006) findings from 2002 through 2005. For the purposes of this study, the term ‘sexual assault’ includes sexual assault or abusive sexual contact among inmates, but not involving correctional officers or staff.
Significance of the Inmate Sexual Assault Problem in Texas Prisons
As of the date of Austin et al.’s (2006) publication, Texas had approximately four times the national average allegations of sexual assaults, with approximately 5,000 to 6,000 allegations of sexual assault per year among the approximately 150,000 prisoners across the state. The TDCJ statewide sexual assault allegation rate was between six and 12 allegations per 10,000 prisoners from 1993 to 1999. During 1999, the rate of allegations doubled, and then the rate of sexual assault allegations increased again after the Texas Safe Prison Program (TSPP) was established. Austin et al. (2006) explained this increase as a reflection of the TSPP goals of increasing detection and reporting of sexual assault in Texas prisons. “Abusive sexual contact” allegations, which are defined as “contact of any person without his or her consent,” were found to have increased yearly from 2001 through 2005 (Austin et al., 2006, p. 9). The increase was interpreted to be a possible indication that prisoner awareness may have been increasing the prisoners’ willingness to report such incidents. Follow up research in this area might shed additional light on that premise. Although the prominence of sexual assault against prisoners has prompted researchers to study aspects of the problem as it relates to female victims (Nielsen, 2017), male victims (Sutton & Sutton, 2016), and as it relates to transgender victims (Malkin & DeJong, 2018), less is known about other factors related to sexual assault in Texas prisons. Austin et al. (2006) established what might be considered a baseline of analysis related to sexual assault in Texas prisons. However, no other studies were found comparing subsequent years’ data to Austin et al.’s (2006) comprehensive report.
Legal and Programmatic Foundations
Prison sexual assault has been established as a significant problem within the U.S. corrections system (Beck & Stroop, 2017). The problem has advanced to the extent that lawmakers took notice more than 15 years ago. As a result, Public Law 10879, also known as the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) was passed as an attempt to build an understanding of the problem and compel states to participate in addressing the problem (Struckman-Johnson & Struckman-Johnson, 2013). The PREA included other requirements for tracking and reporting factors related to sexual assault against inmates (Malkin & DeJong, 2018).
The PREA was signed into law in 2003 as a mechanism to reduce inmate sexual assault (TDCJ, 2019). The PREA consisted of the appointment of the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission (NPREC) and the Review Panel on Prison Rape (TDCJ, 2019). The NPREC is a Congressional panel designed to study policies at all levels of government that relate to all factors of inmate sexual assault in the U.S. The Review Panel on Prison Rape conducted hearings and interviews of officials at correctional facilities with the highest and lowest incidents of sexual assault. After a series of hearings and activities by the two groups, the DOJ released a final rule in 2012 adopting national standards pursuant to the PREA. Pursuant to PREA standards, facilities are required to undergo audits by PREA certified auditors from the DOJ in order to determine the level of compliance with the PREA.
Texas Safe Prisons Program
The TDCJ Safe Prisons/PREA Program (2019) requires that data be collected for every alleged incident of sexual abuse, and that a standardized instrument be used. Administrators are required to, at a minimum, collect the data required for the DOJ Survey of Sexual Victimization (SSV). Additionally, incident-based data must be aggregated each year, and saved for use during the SSV. Certainly, the TDCJ has taken significant steps to comply with PREA standards. One step taken toward compliance is data collection for the Department of Justice (DOJ) SSV. The TDCJ has also established a PREA Ombudsman and conducts PREA audits of correctional facilities.
According to the TDCJ (n.d.), the TDCJ Safe Prisons/PREA Program is designed to oversee PREA-related activities. The Safe Prisons/PREA Management Office (SPPMO) provides policy advice to TDCJ management and maintains a database of allegations of inmate sexual assault. The SPPMO also conducts training for staff and inmates to help deter and prevent sexual abuse. SPPMO also facilitates emotional support services through community organizations, for victims of sexual assault. TDCJ also employs a PREA ombudsman that assists with coordination of PREA activities and data collection related to PREA. The TDCJ PREA annual report is required to collect data and corrective actions from the prior years, and assess the progress being made toward reducing sexual abuse in Texas prisons.
Sexual Assault in Texas Prisons
Austin et al. (2006) conducted a comprehensive, federally funded study of the TDCJ facilities across the state, and found several trends relative to sexual assaults in Texas prisons. Although staffing increased between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., allegations of sexual assaults also increase during those hours. Austin et al. (2006) posited that the increased staff members were preoccupied with additional daily duties, leaving cell blocks unchecked for extended periods. One might also argue that correctional officer shortages are another potential reason for cell blocks receiving less checks. Austin et al. (2006) recommended that TDCJ review staff deployment processes to avoid times when the Control Room Officer is available to monitor the cell fronts and day rooms, where a majority of the assaults are alleged to have occurred.
Austin et al. (2006) found that alleged sexual assaults occurred more in closed off areas than in open areas. Their analysis also found that two facilities had extremely low allegations of sexual assault. Overall, allegations of sexual assault were found to be much lower in dormitory environments than in facilities with cells. The low numbers at the two facilities were attributed by the TDCJ staff and researchers to be partially due to facilities having dormitory type housing, instead of cells. The open nature of dormitory housing reduces privacy and may deter sexual assault. However, Austin et al. (2016) also posited that the deterrent factor of openness would likely be greatly reduced if corrections officers are not observing the area. Double bunked cells were found to be where most allegations of sexual assault occurred. This was attributed to cells having solid doors.
Austin et al. (2006) also hypothesized that solid-front cell doors limited observation by corrections officers and added a level of soundproofing to cells. Although the solid front doors were considered to provide inmates with better privacy, that privacy may increase the likelihood of assault in the cells. They also found that an open cell block design may reduce sexual assault incidents but may also be discouraging the reporting of sexual assaults in the cell block. They found that approximately 67% of sexual assault allegations allegedly occurred in cells. Table 1 illustrates Austin et al.’s (2006) findings related to locations of alleged sexual assaults in the TDCJ.
Overall, when compared to the aggregate data from 2002 through 2005, the aggregate data covering 2010 through 2017 show slightly less sexual assault allegations in cells and notably more allegations in dorm housing and in showers/restrooms. Additionally, cells remain as the primary location of alleged sexual assault in TDCJ facilities with approximately 63% of the complaints. Table 1 compares Austin et al.’s (2006) findings from 2002 through 2005 to the data collected for this study from 2010 through 2017.
Location of Alleged Sexual Assaults within Texas Correctional Facilities from Fiscal Year 2010 through Fiscal Year 2017
Sexual Assault Allegations in TDCJ Facilities from 2010 Through 2017
This basic descriptive research compiled data from TDCJ yearly reports to identify the prominence of sexual assault complaints based on the area within the facility. Data from 2010 to 2017 were used for comparison against Austin et al.’s (2006) findings, covering 2002 through 2005. Figure 1 depicts the yearly sexual assault allegations per 10,000 inmates in TDCJ facilities from 2010 through 2017. The figure shows an increase of approximately 25% between 2010 and 2017. However, from 2011 to 2017, the instances of sexual assault per 10,000 inmates was relatively stable except for a high year in 2013 and a low year in 2016. This could indicate that the potential for a type of long-term seasonality should be considered prior to any inferences from these data. Indeed, if we remove 2010 from the figure, the yearly numbers would appear more consistent.
Total Sexual Assault Allegations Per 10,000 inmates, within TDCJ Facilities Per Year from Fiscal Year 2010 through Fiscal Year 2017
Figure 2 depicts the yearly sexual assault allegations by area in TDCJ facilities. One can see a notable increase in allegations in dorm housing. Additionally, reports of sexual assault in cell blocks are consistently well above other areas. The figure also appears to show a greater degree of variance in the number of sexual assault allegations within cell blocks than in other areas.
Location of Sexual Assault Allegations within TDCJ Facilities Per Year from Fiscal Year 2010 through Fiscal Year 2017
Two-tailed Wilcoxon signed rank tests were also conducted to examine whether there were significant differences between sexual assault allegations in cell blocks and each of the other areas of TDCJ prisons. The two-tailed Wilcoxon signed rank test was used because it is a non-parametric alternative to the paired samples t-test (Conover & Iman, 1981, Field, 2018). The results of the two-tailed Wilcoxon signed rank test indicated that significantly more reported sexual assault occurred within cell blocks than within any of the other areas of the prison.
Reported sexual assault in cells was significantly higher than dorm housing (V = 36.00, z = -2.52, p = .012). The median of reported sexual assault in cell blocks (Mdn = 22.52) was significantly larger than the median of reported sexual assault in dorm housing (Mdn = 5.78). Reported sexual assault in cells was significantly higher than kitchen and dining areas (V = 36.00, z = -2.52, p = .012). The median of reported sexual assault in cell blocks (Mdn = 22.52) was significantly larger than the median of reported sexual assault in dorm housing (Mdn = 1.11). Reported sexual assault in cells was significantly higher than offender dayroom areas (V = 36.00, z = -2.52, p = .012). The median of reported sexual assault in cell blocks (Mdn = 22.52) was significantly larger than the median of reported sexual assault in offender dayrooms (Mdn = 3.34). Reported sexual assault in cells was significantly higher than offender dayroom areas (V = 36.00, z = -2.52, p = .012). The median of reported sexual assault in cell blocks (Mdn = 22.52) was significantly larger than the median of reported sexual assault in offender dayrooms (Mdn = 4.00).
One can see a difference in the total percentage by area, for the seven-year period of this study, when compared to the three year period of Austin et al.’s (2006) research. Figure 1 also shows a relatively consistent yearly increase in sexual assault allegations in dorm housing from 2010 to 2017. This finding should prompt further research by the TDCJ to determine why the increase occurred in that particular type of location within their facilities. Dorms are often large, open bay type rooms which can hold many inmates. Cells, however, are smaller rooms that may hold only two inmates. This is an important distinction, since it raises a question regarding the nature of the increase in sexual assault allegations in dorm areas. As mentioned previously, Austin et al. (2016) argued that the deterrent factor associated with the nature of open dorm areas might be greatly reduced if corrections officers are not observing the area. Thus, determining associations between officer presence and activities in dorms and sexual assault complaints, might provide additional insight into the increase in allegations in the dorm areas, which were previously unattractive locations for sexual assault.
TDCJ management should explore the potential of developing a robust research and analysis program aimed at reducing sexual assault in TDCJ facilities. Establishment of an internal research and analysis program aimed at reducing inmate sexual assault would allow the TDCJ to extend beyond the parameters set by PREA and DOJ, and focus upon identifying and correcting Texas-specific trends relative to inmate sexual assault. Such a research and analysis program could collect and analyze data related to other problems within the TDCJ, as determined by management. This solution would provide the data to support inmate sexual assault research not only in Texas, but throughout the U.S. Currently, researchers are limited in access to data to support studies. As a vulnerable population, prisoners are somewhat difficult to access. Collecting and reporting more official data allows for maximum prisoner protection while also allowing maximum access to the data by researchers. Such a program would allow for rigorous methods to evaluate the progress or lack of progress related to its inmate sexual assault problem. This would also likely have a positive impact on sexual assault victims in that they would eventually benefit from improved practices, based upon the data gathered and analyzed by the program.
As part of the enhanced research and analysis efforts, TDCJ should explore the potential of creating some additional reporting requirements relative to inmate sexual assault. Additional reporting requirements will allow for more research to provide a foundation for subsequent evidence-based changes to the corrections system. Requiring more thorough reporting of details surrounding sexual assault will allow for data aggregation, followed by trends analysis. Reporting data in a consistent and user-friendly way will allow for DOJ researchers and academic researchers to readily conduct beneficial research. Police departments currently report Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) and National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS) data in a similar manner. Although any organizational change is challenging, the benefits of consistent and transparent reporting are apparent in the myriad publications and insight that have resulted from UCR and NIBRS data.
Limitations and Recommendations for Future Research
Among the most glaring limitations of this study is the lack of context from inability to access facilities, to provide an understanding of the physical layout of the facilities. Additionally, lack of other context such as guard force shortage information further limits this study. The use of aggregate data is another study limitation. Any inferences made from these data should avoid assumptions that any one facility in the TDCJ reflects the trends presented here. To do so would be aggregation bias.
Future research should explore the reason for the increases in sexual assault complaints in the dorm areas, with an eye toward guard shortages and rotations, specifically in dorm areas. Such research would need to extend beyond the limitations of quantitative-only studies. In another example of the need for qualitative information to provide context, this study showed a continued disproportionately high rate of alleged sexual assault in cells. Austin et al. (2006) argued that the solid doors of the cells could act as a barrier to sight and sound, limiting officers’ ability to detect assaults. This study would benefit greatly from similar knowledge of the state of the cell doors in order to support or contradict Austin et al.’s (2006) argument about the relationship between solid cell doors and sexual assaults in cells. Researchers should also explore the perspectives of inmates and corrections officers, relative to reasons for sexual assault in prisons, and how the structural and layout components of an area or facility might impact the decision making of potential offenders.
This paper analyzed TDCJ administrative data to identify trends in sexual assault allegations across correctional facilities in Texas. Data from 2010 to 2017 were used for comparison against Austin et al.’s (2006) findings covering 2002 through 2005. This study shows an approximately 25% increase in sexual assault allegations, between 2010 and 2017. These findings align with Austin et al.’s (2006) findings, in that cell blocks are still home to most sexual assault allegations among inmates. This analysis also uncovered statistically significant differences in reported sexual assault occurring in inmate cell blocks versus each of the other areas within the TDCJ facilities. In addition, when compared to the aggregate data from 2002 through 2005, the aggregate data covering 2010 through 2017 show slightly less sexual assault allegations in cells and notably more allegations in dorm housing and in showers/restrooms. As is often the case with multi-variate problems, a dedicated, multi-faceted approach to additional data collection and analysis is likely one of the few ways for the TDCJ to better understand the nature of this problem.
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Areas: Criminal Justice