Inmate Sexual Assaults Point To Lack Of Information

The task of knowing the prevalence of rape and sexual violence in prisons is not an easy one, and that statement applies to Colorado, where the state Department of Corrections (DOC) holds limited information on the issue.

In 2005 the DOC reported 16 inmate assaults, but there is no such data for previous years, and current information is still being compiled. On the federal level the outlook is a little brighter, as the government is just starting to do more elaborate surveys. “It’s been understudied,” says  Lovisa Stannow, executive director of Stop Prisoner Rape (SPR), a nonprofit organization that works to end sexual assaults in state and federal detention facilities. “We simply don’t know enough about the prevalence of this form of violence for a variety of reasons.”

SPR was founded in 1980 by assault survivors, and stands now as one of a few organizations dealing exclusively with the issue of sexual violence in prisons.

One of the reasons Stannow says the data is so lacking, is because information is often times obtained from formal complaints, which are not a good indication of the prevalence of the problem.

“Most sexual assaults in detention are not reported,” says Stannow. “Prisoners tend to be very fearful of filing a formal complaint, simply not trusting the system will be there for them, fearing retaliation, fearing that if it becomes known that they’ve been raped and they’re not adequately protected they could actually be subjected to worse forms of abuse.”

When the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) was passed by a Congressional bi-partisan consensus in 2003, it mandated that the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) “develop a new national data collection on the incidence and prevalence of sexual assault” in correctional institutions, including surveys of  no less than 10 percent of all “federal, state, and county prisons, and a representative sample of municipal prisons.” The measure was the first federal law dealing with sexual assaults in penal institutions.

Even the BJS admitted in a 2004 report that “there have been only a few studies on the prevalence of sexual assault within correctional facilities,” and that “the magnitude of sexual assault among prisoners is not currently well understood.”

The BJS only recently started implementing a fully operational statistics program under the legislation, which will not only look at formal complaints, but will hold anonymous inmate surveys at random detention facilities.

Last Spring, the Colorado legislature passed a measure to comply with PREA that did not add any additional legal requirements on the state level.

“This is another situation where the feds have mandated a program and temporarily provided the costs of it and now they are leaving further implementation to the states…is that a fair assessment?” asked House Appropriations Committee chairman Rep. Bernie Buescher (D-Grand Junction) in a hearing on the issue.

“Correct, Mr. Chairman,” responded Rep. Terrance Carrol (D-Denver), who sponsored the measure in the House.

But even with federal studies that are just starting to pick up steam, the state DOC is lacking in general information about sexual assaults. An open records request sent to the department in September shows that the DOC doesn’t have data on assaults for the years 2002-2004 because the department “implemented a new tracking and reporting system” in 2005. The DOC also responded that information for 2006 was not completed.

When asked about the data, Katherine Sanguinetti, director of public relations for the DOC, said she didn’t know how the tracking system was different than the previous one, and speculated that the DOC changed it because of federal law.

Erin Rosa was born in Spain and raised in Colorado Springs. She is a freelance writer currently living in Denver. Rosa's work has been featured in a variety of news outlets including the Huffington Post, Democracy Now!, and the Rocky Mountain Chronicle, an alternative-weekly in Northern Colorado where she worked as a columnist covering the state legislature. Rosa has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for her reporting on lobbying and woman's health issues. She was also tapped with a rare honorable mention award by the Newspaper Guild-CWA's David S. Barr Award in 2008--only the second such honor conferred in its nine-year history--for her investigative series covering the federal government's Supermax prison in the state. Rosa covers the labor community, corrections, immigration and government transparency matters. She can be reached at