Incarcerated Women’s Experiences of Staff-Perpetrated Rape: Racial Disparities and Justice Gaps in Institutional Responses

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Within correctional settings, incarcerated women have disproportionately high rates of experiencing staff-perpetrated sexual victimization. In addition, only a small proportion of incarcerated women formally report their victimization experiences to correctional staff and even fewer reports are fully investigated by internal investigators and found to be substantiated. Given the multiple steps in this process, incarcerated women face several possible justice gaps in receiving preventive and intervention-focused responses from correctional staff. Racial differences among incarcerated women’s experiences of these steps have not been explored. This study used a structural intersectional framework to examine racial differences in these areas: incarcerated women’s experiences of staff-perpetrated rape, reporting decisions, and correctional staff’s investigation decisions. With a sample of 180 incarcerated women, this study included analysis of archival data (i.e., settlement claim forms and internal investigation files) from a class action lawsuit involving incarcerated women who had experienced staff sexual misconduct. Black women represented over half of the incarcerated women who experienced staff-perpetrated rape. There were no statistical differences between Black and White women with regard to the characteristics of their victimization experiences, and they had similar rates of reporting their victimization to institutional staff. However, significant differences were found between women with regard to prison staff’s responses to their reports; Black women were less likely to have their reports investigated by staff and were more likely to have their investigated reports found to be unsubstantiated. A detailed analysis of 100 specific incidents showed similar findings. Thus, while justice gaps existed for all women, gaps in institutional responses were exacerbated for Black women. Centering incarcerated Black women’s experiences is pivotal for guiding efforts to transform correctional settings, to prevent and address staff-perpetrated sexual victimization, and to build safety for incarcerated women.

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Journal of Interpersonal Violence





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