Have You Experienced Sexual Assault Or Abuse?

Prison Inmate Abuse: Rights + Options

For every story of prison abuse in America’s detention facilities, many more go unreported or mishandled by the institution. Victimized inmates may feel powerless and unable to report or stand up against the guards or prison staff for fear of retaliation or further harm. If you or someone you know experienced sexual abuse while in a detention facility, you have rights and options to seek help and healing.

Survivor Advocate

Key Takeaways

  • Prison inmates have constitutional rights not to be subjected to abuse, neglect, or harassment while incarcerated.
  • Sexual abuse or assault of an incarcerated person is a crime — but it can be difficult for inmates to seek medical care or report the harm that happened to them for fear of further abuse, retaliation, or facing solitary confinement
  • Prison sexual abuse victims and their families may be eligible to pursue a civil lawsuit against the jail or prison — we can help connect you with an experienced law firm who can help you understand your legal rights and options.

Prison Inmate Abuse: An Overview

Prison abuse, also called inmate abuse, is the deliberate mistreatment of an incarcerated person. Prison abuse may happen in any government detention facility, including jails, prisons, and juvenile detention centers.

When referring to inmate abuse, the technical term is typically referencing abuse perpetrated by staff of the prison or jail including prison guards, law enforcement officers, and prison wardens or other individuals in positions of power within the system. While abuse between inmates is a documented problem within detention facilities, this is usually referred to as inmate-to-inmate abuse and your reporting rights and options may differ.

Common types of prison abuse include the following:

  • Physical violence and use of excessive force
  • Sexual abuse, including rape
  • Psychological abuse
  • Solitary confinement
  • Unsanitary living conditions
  • Denied access to food, water, or medical care

These abuses can have long-term consequences, including chronic illness, permanent injury, and psychological trauma. Oftentimes, an incarcerated individual may experience multiple types of inmate abuse at once, especially if the abuse has escalated to prison sexual abuse.

Last Date Modified
May 17, 2024

What To Do if an Incarcerated Individual Is Mistreated

Help is available for victims of current or past prison sexual abuse. If you or someone you love is currently incarcerated and is experiencing or has recently experienced abuse, consider these steps to help document, report, and understand your options.

Contact a Hotline

An anonymous hotline is usually the safest course of action to address active and ongoing abuse. Some states may have specific hotlines for incarcerated individuals or their loved ones to seek help after experiencing inmate sexual abuse. However, individuals should use caution when engaging with these services and sharing private information, as sometimes these hotlines are sponsored by the state or the prison facility and it is unclear how this data is used or could result in harm to the inmate.

This is why we recommend contacting a general support non-profit hotline or live chat such as RAINN’s National Sexual Assault hotline offers English and Spanish voice-call options, as well as an online chat hotline or VictimConnect, which is a hotline for victims of any type of crime to seek personalized real-time assistance. Both of these organizations are designed and trained in providing real-time active support for individuals seeking help.

If someone is actively incarcerated and can not call, text, or live chat with a hotline advocate, someone else can call and seek advice on their behalf. Phone calls, emails, and text messages that are sent through detention center devices can be recorded, and individuals should proceed with caution and if you are seeking assistance on behalf of someone, you should listen to their desires and requests first and foremost.

Seek Medical Help if Possible

If you recently experienced inmate abuse, whether sexual or physical, you may be suffering from physical injuries, at risk of sexually transmitted diseases, or, if a woman, at risk of pregnancy. Seeking medical assistance may be difficult as you may not want to disclose to staff what happened, even if they are medical staff.

However, if you can, you should seek medical care — even if it is under the guise of another context or illness for your safety. For example, if you are suffering from pelvic pain following a sexual assault, ask for pain medication for a headache or twisted ankle. Additionally, you can request an STI blood test or STI medication for fear of STIs from prior to being incarcerated.

If you feel safe doing so, you can ask prior to disclosing what the process if for someone disclosing sexual abuse and what are their reporting requirements as a medical professional and employee. Each state may have different requirements and obligations if sexual assault is disclosed to a medical professional and if you fear retaliation for filing an official report, disclosing could put you in danger.

However, if you do feel safe disclosing to medical staff, either at this point or in the future, you should provide as many details as possible. Not only can disclosing help in the moment, these records can help your case if you pursue legal action such as filing a lawsuit against the facility.

Document What Happened

As soon as you can, we recommend documenting the abuse in your own words as soon as it is safe to do so. While the ability to access writing instruments and papers varies depending on the incarceration situation, it is important to try to find a safe way to write down what happened. This could also mean dictating the harm to another inmate who can write it down for you.

When documenting the harm, it is important to include as much information as possible, including:

  • Date and Time
  • Location (City, State)
  • Location within Facility (where did it happen within the facility?)
  • Names of individuals involved (witnesses, perpetrators, those you’ve told)
  • What happened in your own words
  • Any previous instances of inmate abuse that show an escalation of harm
  • How you currently feel including any fears related to reporting

It is important to keep this document safe and, especially if you fear retaliation or further harm, away from inmate staff as much as possible. This could mean a variety of things and we trust that each individual will do what is best for them but you may also think about sending it out in the mail or giving it to someone you trust who is leaving the facility to share with someone you trust.

Tell Someone You Trust

Disclosing the harm that happened can not only help relieve some of the mental stress that is common after such an experience, it can also help you in the future if you choose to pursue your legal options. Even years later, this disclosure can help a case and be used as testimony in a lawsuit against the prison or in a criminal case if the state prosecutes the offense.

Which is why we recommend telling at least one person you deeply trust as soon as possible. You can set parameters around the disclosure such as they are not to tell anyone or report the harm themselves (as this could cause you further harm).

Even if you experienced inmate abuse in the past, telling someone you trust can help. It may provide further solace and emotional release and understanding for both of you. It may also help you take the next step in your healing journey such as seeking mental health support or talking to a lawyer about filing an inmate sexual abuse lawsuit.

Options to Report Inmate Abuse

Given that inmate abuse is often perpetrated by prison staff, reporting it immediately to law enforcement without endangering the victim’s safety is difficult. If you or a loved one needs to report current or past abuse, listed below are a few options.

If someone you love has disclosed prison abuse to you, the first thing you should do is ask what kind of support they need and want. They may not want you to report the abuse to law enforcement, disclose to others, or take any sort of action.

File a Complaint Against a Local, County, or State Facillity for Prison Sexual Abuse

The first step in officially reporting abuse is to file a complaint with the correctional facility. Your state’s corrections department should provide a list of institutions that accept complaints.

If the facility fails to take action, escalate your complaint to the corrections department and, if necessary, increasingly larger government officials such as the mayor, state prosecutor, or governor. Unfortunately, these systems are inundated with reports and are often understaffed and overwhelmed — so you may need to advocate for yourself after reporting to get movement within the investigation.

File a Complaint Against a Federal Prison for Sexual Abuse

If the abuse took place at a federal prison, look up the facility’s contact information via the Federal Bureau of Prisons and report to the institution where the abuse is happening.

If the prison fails to take action, report the incident directly to the Bureau of Prisons — they offer and online contact form and users should select “Report a concern.”

Refer to the Prisons and Jails Standards

The federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, or PREA, was enacted to deter sexual violence in prison. The National PREA Resource Center is working to eliminate prison sexual abuse by creating standards for reporting and investigating claims and facilitating safe reporting.

The standards for reporting inmate sexual abuse state:

The agency shall also provide at least one way for inmates to report abuse or harassment to a public or private entity or office that is not part of the agency, and that is able to receive and immediately forward inmate reports of sexual abuse and sexual harassment to agency officials, allowing the inmate to remain anonymous upon request.

PREA also lists resources inmates and their families can use to pursue justice. Use these resources if the relevant facility is non-responsive or if you previously filed a complaint but there has been no action taken. As always, if you use a government-sponsored resource, use caution when disclosing personal information as data practices and privacy remain unclear.

Contact an Experienced Attorney to Discuss Filing an Inmate Sexual Abuse Lawsuit

If you have experienced abuse or if someone has reported abuse to you, the best first step is to contact an attorney experienced in prison sexual abuse cases. They can counsel you regarding your reporting options including seeking monetary damages by filing a lawsuit against the facility for the harm that happened to you. They can also help protect your rights throughout the process and help ensure your report and personal details remain confidential to the public.

They can also advise you regarding the statute of limitations, which sets the deadline for your claim. States have different time parameters and limitations for prosecuting or filing a civil claim for sexual assault offenses, so it’s essential to promptly consult a lawyer about your options.

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Prison Inmate Abuse Statistics

In 2023, the U.S. Department of Justice released a summary of reported sexual misconduct between 2016 and 2018. The report provided the following:

  • 2,666 reported incidents of sexual victimization of an inmate by another inmate
  • 2,229 incidents of victimization by staff
  • Only 38 percent of sexual misconduct incidents perpetrated by prison staff resulted in legal action
  • 95 percent of staff accused of sexually harassing prisoners faced no legal action

56 percent of staff accused of sexual misconduct faced no disciplinary action

A study by the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the criminal justice system, confirms the frequent lack of consequences for staff who commit abuse. In an investigation of the New York prison discipline system, reporters found that:

  • Out of 290 cases of confirmed abuse, the corrections department terminated only 10 percent of officers.
  • In nearly half of about 160 examined lawsuits, guards allegedly retaliated against the prisoners involved.
  • Only 38% of incidents of prison staff engaging in sexual misconduct against an inmate resulted in legal action over the three-year period of the study

Prisoner Abuse Cases in the Headlines

One of the most notorious examples of prisoner abuse in recent years occurred at FCI Dublin, a low-security women’s prison near Oakland, California. A 2021 investigation revealed multiple reports of repeated sexual abuse of inmates by staff. The abuse was so widespread that inmates and employees began calling the prison “the rape club.”

Despite an ongoing investigation and multiple convictions of staff members, inmates reported ongoing mistreatment. FCI Dublin made the news again in 2024 when then-warden Art Dulgov was removed from his post. According to government attorneys, Dulgov’s staff had retaliated against witnesses testifying to the abuse.

Other highly publicized cases include the abuse of more than 120 inmates in Illinois’s Thomson Penitentiary Special Management Unit. The unit closed in February 2023 after widespread reports of physical violence, racial discrimination, and illegal retaliation. Five men died while incarcerated in the unit.

Given these well-publicized incidents, numerous victims feel powerless to speak up. At Helping Survivors, we find this power imbalance unacceptable and are dedicated to helping prisoners and families fight back by helping them understand their rights and options. If you or someone you know has experienced sexual abuse while incarcerated, reach out to us and we can help you understand your rights and can connect you with a local experienced law firm.

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