Understanding the Decision to Officially Report Sexual Assaults in Prison

Published date01 June 2023
AuthorH. Daniel Butler,Jeffrey A. Bouffard,Jennifer K. Beatty,Leana A. Bouffard
Date01 June 2023
Subject MatterArticles
CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIOR, 2023, Vol. 50, No. 6, June 2023, 849 –869.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/00938548231162090
Article reuse guidelines: sagepub.com/journals-permissions
© 2023 International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology
Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice, Iowa State University
Most studies of crime reporting examine decisions to report to the police in community settings. While informative, this focus
leaves a gap in identifying the correlates of official reporting behaviors among incarcerated individuals. This is noteworthy
considering the passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act mandating states collect and report data on sexual assaults in
confinement facilities. To address these concerns, this study provides one of the first multivariable examinations of decisions
to officially report sexual assaults to correctional staff. This study also examines the correlates of official reporting across
perpetrator type (another incarcerated individual or correctional staff member) and the correlates for not reporting a sexual
assault (embarrassment, fear of reprisal, and belief no investigation will take place). The findings indicate most sexual
assaults are not reported, and few in-prison experiences or incident characteristics explain the decision to officially report or
the reasons for not reporting.
Keywords: sexual assault; corrections; incarceration; sexual abuse; prison misconduct
Approximately 4% of incarcerated individuals have reported experiencing a sexual
assault within the past 12 months of confinement (Beck et al., 2010, 2013). Broadly defined,
sexual assaults include a variety of behaviors, from unwanted touching and fondling to
forcible rape with penetration (Bureau of Justice Statistics [BJS], 2004; Gaes & Goldberg,
2004).1 These types of victimization may lead to several adverse psychological outcomes,
such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), self-harm, depression, and anxiety (Listwan
et al., 2010). The seriousness of this type of sexual victimization prompted the passage of
the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA, 2003) in the United States which mandated states
AUTHORS’ NOTE: This project was funded by the Sam Houston State External Grant Application
Development System (EGADS) for approximately $4,000 (Award # 29036). Correspondence concerning this
article should be addressed to H. Daniel Butler, Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice, Iowa State
University, 103 East Hall, Ames, IA 50011; e-mail: hdbutler@iastate.edu.
1162090CJBXXX10.1177/00938548231162090Criminal Justice and BehaviorButler et al. / Short Title
develop strategies to identify, collect, and report data related to the occurrence of sexual
assault in confinement facilities. PREA also provided a structure to detect and report sexual
assaults with the goals of protecting victims and implementing swift institutional responses
(e.g., zero-tolerance sexual assault policies; PREA, 2003; Thompson et al., 2008).
Prior research has examined the factors associated with sexual victimization in correc-
tional settings (Wolff & Shi, 2009; Wolff et al., 2007), but few studies have examined the
factors that influence formal reporting of these incidents to correctional officials (e.g., cor-
rectional staff, officers, administrators, chaplains). Even less is known about why victims
decide to not formally disclose or report sexual assaults (e.g., fear of retaliation; see Felson
et al., 2002 who examined reporting behaviors to police). This study used the National
Inmate Survey (NIS), 2011–2012, a nationally representative sample of incarcerated per-
sons who self-report on a variety of pre- and in-prison experiences, to examine the corre-
lates of reporting behaviors of victims of sexual assaults to correctional staff. The NIS
(2011–2012) also provided information on why victims do not report the sexual assault,
such as feeling embarrassed, fearing retaliation, and believing no investigation will take
place. Given the strengths of the NIS, we examined not only the reporting decisions but also
the reasons for not reporting.
The passage of PREA (2003) led to considerable change in how states detect, monitor,
report, and respond to sexual assaults in prison. The need to establish a system to detect,
monitor, and report sexual assaults required that a common definition be used across states.
For instance, the percentage of individuals who reported being sexually assaulted while
incarcerated varies considerably across state and federal prison systems from less than 1%
to 22% (Nacci & Kane, 1983; Struckman-Johnson & Struckman-Johnson, 2000). This vari-
ation may be due in part to the definition that is used to capture sexual assault. Most recently,
the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) defined sexual assault as “unwanted contacts with
another inmate or any contacts with staff that involved oral, anal, vaginal penetration, hand
jobs, and other sexual acts” (Beck et al., 2013, p. 9). The data gathered by BJS (The National
Inmate Survey, 2010–2011, used in this study) found that approximately 4% of all individu-
als incarcerated in prisons experienced sexual victimization in the past 12 months.
Another major objective of PREA was to improve reporting procedures (PREA, 2003).
In particular, many states adopted mandatory reporting practices for all staff who witness or
are informed of a sexual assault, in addition to a telephone hotline that is set up for the
reporting of such incidents (Thompson et al., 2008). In an effort to improve reporting prac-
tices, many states mandated formal training for correctional staff on detecting and reporting
sexual assaults. Similarly, many states implemented programming that educates incarcer-
ated individuals about sexual assaults and the resources that are available to report such
incidents. It is possible that these policy changes may influence decisions about whether to
report sexual assaults in an environment that has not traditionally been seen as conducive to
reporting or “snitching” on others (Garland & Wilson, 2012; Reiter, 2012).
The decision to report a sexual assault is predicated on several layers of individual expe-
riences, attitudes, support opportunities, and institutional policies that exist across a

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