What We Know About Violence in America's Prisons

One fifth of inmates say they've been assaulted by another prisoner or a guard.

Read Mother Jones reporter Shane Bauer's firsthand account of his four months spent working as a guard at a corporate-run prison in Louisiana.

Safety is an issue in all prisons, but accurate data on violence in prisons can be hard to come by. Here's a look at what we know about physical and sexual assault in America's prisons—and what was reported at the private prison in Louisiana where Shane Bauer worked.

Physical Assault Behind Bars

Sexual Assault Behind Bars

  • Officials reported fewer than 8,800 incidents of rape and other sexual victimization in all American prisons and jails in 2011.
  • Yet between 3 percent and 9 percent of male inmates say they have been sexually assaulted behind bars, which suggests more than 180,000 current prisoners may have been victimized.
  • Former inmates of private state prisons are half as likely to say they have been sexually victimized by another inmate as those who were in public state prisons. However, they are nearly twice as likely to report being sexually victimized by staff.
  • 66% of incidents of sexual misconduct by prison staff involve sexual relationships with inmates who "appeared to be willing," according to authorities.

Women are…

  • 7% of the total prison population
  • 22% of all victims of inmate-on-inmate sexual victimization
  • 33% of all victims of staff-on-inmate sexual victimization

Private vs. Public prisons

There is no current data on how violence in public prisons compares with violence in private ones. The last study released by the Department of Justice, in 2001, found that the rate of inmate-on-inmate assaults was 38 percent higher at private prisons than at public prisons.

Violence at Winn Correctional Center

While working as a guard at the Corrections Corporation of America's Winn Correctional Center in early 2015, Shane Bauer noted 12 stabbings over two months. Yet records from Louisiana's Department of Corrections show that Winn reported just five stabbings during the first 10 months of the year. (CCA says it reports all assaults and that the doc may have classified incidents differently.)

  • During those 10 months, Winn reported finding 114 inmate weapons—nearly 3 times what was found at the GEO-run Allen Correctional Center, a medium-security prison of roughly the same size.
  • Winn's rate of uses of "immediate" force by staff at Winn was 40 times greater than that of the similarly sized state-run prison in Avoyelles Parish.
  • The rate of incidents where Winn inmates were sprayed with pepper spray or other chemical agents was 3 times the rate of such incidents at Allen and Avoyelles.
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