Incentives Matter: Prison Rape Edition
By Bryan Caplan
If I had to serve time, I’d prefer to be sent to a for-profit prison factory. The main reason: I think my employer would make an effort to protect me from severe abuse. After all, a victimized indentured servant is an unproductive indentured servant!
The most notorious form of prison abuse, of course, is rape. How severe is this risk? According to the recently released National Prison Rape Elimination Commission Report, it’s pretty severe, almost 5% per year:
BJS conducted the first wave of surveys in 2007 in a random sample of 146 State and Federal prisons and 282 local jails. A total of 63,817 incarcerated individuals completed surveys, providing the most comprehensive snapshot of sexual abuse in prisons and jails to date. Four-and-a-half percent of prisoners surveyed reported experiencing sexual abuse one or more times during the 12 months preceding the survey or over their term of incarceration if they had been confined in that facility for less than 12 months. Extrapolated to the national prison population, an estimated 60,500 State and Federal prisoners were sexually abused during that 12-month period.
You might think that rape is an inevitable feature of communities of convicts. But rates vary widely – too widely, I think, for inmate composition to explain:
Although sexual abuse of prisoners is widespread, rates vary across facilities. For example, 10 facilities had comparatively high rates, between 9.3 and 15.7 percent, whereas in six of the facilities no one reported abuse during that time period. [emphasis mine]
As economists and non-economists alike would predict, smaller, weaker prisoners are victimized more:
Youth, small stature, and lack of experience in correctional facilities appear to increase the risk of sexual abuse by other prisoners. So does having a mental disability or serious mental illness. Research on sexual abuse in correctional facilities consistently documents the vulnerability of men and women with non-heterosexual orientations and transgender individuals.
Girls are disproportionately represented among sexual abuse victims. According to data collected by BJS in 2005-2006, 36 percent of all victims in substantiated incidents of sexual violence were female, even though girls represented only 15 percent of confined youth in 2006.
The most striking result, though, is one that only fans of Gary Becker and/or Lord Acton would have expected:
More prisoners reported abuse by staff than abuse by other prisoners: 2.9 percent of respondents compared with about 2 percent.
The lesson: You might think that no one would be more inclined to sexual abuse than criminals in unisex confinement. But if you give authority to relatively normal people who can leave the prison anytime they like, they’re worse.