U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

Prison Rape Elimination Act

Date Published
March 7, 2014

The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) of 2003 requires that federal, state and local correctional facilities maintain and enforce a zero-tolerance policy toward sexual assault for both inmate-on-inmate and staff-on-inmate misconduct.

Since 2003, the Bureau of Justice Statistics has been charged with completing a statistical review and analysis of the incidence and effects of prison rape for each calendar year. In 2011-2012, an estimated 4 percent of state and federal prison inmates and 3.2 percent of jail inmates reported experiencing one or more incidents of sexual victimization by another incarcerated person or facility staff in the preceding 12 months or since admission to the facility. [1]

In fall 2009, at the request of the Attorney General, a PREA Working Group was convened to address the recommendations proposed by the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission. Staff from several Department of Justice (DOJ) components, including NIJ, worked together to review recommendations and draft a final rule.

On May 17, 2012, DOJ issued a final rule adopting national standards to prevent, detect and respond to prison rape, pursuant to PREA. The landmark rule sets national standards for four categories of facilities: adult prisons and jails, lockups, community confinement facilities, and juvenile facilities.  

About the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003

Congress enacted the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 (PREA)[2] to address the problem of sexual abuse of persons in the custody of U.S. correctional agencies. PREA calls for Federal, State, and local corrections systems to have a zero-tolerance policy regarding prison rape (as defined by PREA) in prisons, jails, police lock-ups, and other confinement facilities.

Highlights of PREA include:

  • Requires development of standards for detection, prevention, reduction, and punishment of prison rape.
  • Standardizes collection and dissemination of information on the incidence of prison rape.
  • Awards grants to help State and local governments implement the Act's provisions.

The Act applies to all public and private institutions that house adults or juveniles and to community-based correctional agencies.

The Office of Justice Programs sponsors a PREA Web page with links to resources.

Prison Culture and the Perception of Rape

In response to the Prison Rape Elimination Act, NIJ first awarded a qualitative study to examine incarcerate persons' perceptions of sexual violence in prisons. The Culture of Prison Sexual Violence study [3] is the largest ethnographic study of incarcerated persons ever conducted. The study examined how they perceive sexual relations in prison, including forced sexual misconduct. It covered men's and women's maximum security facilities in 15 States and included more than 600 hours of interviews. Participants were not questioned about their own personal experiences or whether they were the victim or the person who perpetrated the crime. Rather, they were asked questions about their knowledge of sexual violence in their facility and during their own incarcerations.

Overall, reports from persons who are incarcerated indicate that they do not define or consider sexual relationships and rape in the same way that persons within free society view them, and, as a result, perceive rape to be a rare occurrence.

Concepts defining coerced and forced sexual behavior may be perceived differently in prison culture, but they are similar across all prisons in the United States. The researchers reported that 66 percent of incarcerated males and 71 percent of incarcerated females were aware of inmate-staff sexual relationships. Although no relationship between correctional staff and incarcerated people is legal, these estimates included romantic, mutual relationships, not just rape.

Collectively, 9.1 percent of male and female of participants reported they were aware of an incarcerated persons who had been raped by a correctional staff member. Male and female incarcerated persons — about 34 percent and 28 percent respectively — reported they knew of someone who reported rape to staff members. A high percentage of both males and females indicated that corrections officers try to protect individuals who are incarcerated from being victimized.

This research yielded many recommendations for corrections practitioners that can be applied to both prisons and jails. These recommendations apply to staff training, incarcerated person orientation, incarcerated person observation, direct supervision, and policymaking. [4] Their implementation can contribute to changing both incarcerated person and institutional culture [5].

State Responses to PREA

Another recently completed study funded by NIJ [6], examined the policies and practices of State corrections departments in response to PREA. From 2004 to 2005, 27 States reported specific written policies related to prison sexual violence, 19 of which comprehensively addressed prevention, investigation, response, and victim services. Several States also reported proactive efforts to involve the medical community in collecting rape kits for evidence, working with local district attorneys to promote prosecution of offenses, and invested in training staff to engage in investigations of allegations.

In addition to examining policies, the researchers in this study identified and conducted case studies on 11 States that might provide other practitioners with "the most informative lessons on addressing sexual violence in prison." [7] These States were: Connecticut, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Utah. Synopses of these case studies can be found in the final report.

Risk Assessment

One way NIJ has responded to practitioners' needs is through research to develop risk assessment instruments to help identify potential victims or person who commit prison sexual violence. In one study, the researcher developed such a tool from analysis of official reports of incidents in Texas over a 4-year period. Although Texas has one of the highest incidence rates in the United States, it also has one of the lowest rates of substantiated cases. The extremely low base rate made construction of a validated risk-assessment instrument impossible, but the researcher identified potential victim characteristics and developed a checklist. He also identified best practices used by the Texas Safe Prison Program. [8]

Date Published: March 7, 2014