In a ground-breaking cultural study on rape and sexuality in prisons, a Case Western Reserve University social scientist has added new dimensions to generally accepted perceptions generated by movies, television shows or hearsay that prison rape is widespread in correctional facilities in the United States.
"Stories about sex in the shower, that all the pretty boys get raped and that everyone needs a 'daddy' have no basis in the social reality of prison life," reports Mark Fleisher, The Dr. Semi J. and Ruth W. Begun Professor and director of the Begun Center for Violence Prevention, Research and Education at Case's Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences.
Fleisher states that inmates reported that prison rape is uncommon, yet the researcher found that prison inmate culture perpetuates that perception. "Even though men and women may live in prison for 20 years, they still tell prison rape tales and have a huge accumulation of prison rape knowledge though they may never experienced it firsthand," he said.
It is one of the many findings in more than 154 pages of Fleisher's study, "An ethnosemantic study of the culture of prison sexuality," that he conducted for the National Institute of Justice, with funds by the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 (PREA). His study is the first of several funded by PREA on prison rape.
Fleisher's research is the first cultural study ever conducted on prison rape in U.S. prisons. It is also one of the largest research projects ever undertaken in American correctional research by a university researcher. This study continues research that he has done over the past two decades on prison culture.
Between 2003 and 2005, Fleisher collected information about prison rapes by interviewing 564 inmates in men's high security and women's medium and high security prisons in the United States. The structured interviews, with open-ended questions, lasted between 90 minutes to, in many cases, six to seven hours and generated an extensive collection of prison jargon relating to sex and rape and national cultural themes about prison rape shared by inmates across the country.
From those interviews, he learned that prison inmate culture is driven by a need for social order and the behavioral rules of prison sexual culture are "significantly different" from sexual conduct rules for the public outside prison.
"The issue of 'consent' is difficult on so many levels but in the end, consensual sex as we know it doesn't have an equivalent meaning in prison inmate culture," he states.
Fleisher adds that he knows his findings will be controversial because of the public's beliefs in "horrible" images of unsafe prisons and widespread rape. "The culture of prison sexuality, including ideas on rape, are not simply community beliefs transported inside prisons, rather they are different beliefs and create a different social reality."
"There is no equivalent in inmate sexual culture that's equivalent to our perception of rape," Fleisher reports. In prison lexicon, "rape is another way of 'getting ripped-off'—no different from having a radio stolen from a cell," adds Fleisher.
Once an individual enters prison, Fleisher found inmates redefine their sense of sexuality: "Men and women who have never before engaged in same-sex relations will likely engage in them at some point in their imprisonment. Inmates around the country said that a majority of same-sex relations are voluntary, that they don't have to do anything they don't want to do."
Fleisher said all same-sex relations are not necessarily classified by inmates as homosexual relationships. "There's a wide range of same-sex behavior but inmate culture sees some acts as homosexual and other similar acts as 'straight.' Inmates say that the only true freedom they have in prison is sexual freedom."
One of the unexpected findings that surprised Fleisher was that "in the worldview of men and women inmates, a strong belief exists that men and women have at their core a homosexual identity and that the same-sex relations in prison helps them come to terms with this emerging sexuality."
"A heterosexual outside prison comes to prison and has homosexual experiences. Their explanation is that he's getting in touch with his sexual identity," said Fleisher. He added that this is also talked about by women.
In regard to the lesbian experience for women, Fleisher found that even veteran inmates find that heterosexual women with husbands and children "have chosen" to begin same-sex relations within days and weeks of their arrival and when they are released they return to heterosexual behavior.
Both men and women inmates explain same-sex relations among those unfamiliar with it as "curiosity." It is a term used nationwide.
Fleisher explains that inmate culture interprets men's gradual involvement in same-sex behavior as getting in touch with their feminine tendencies.
Fleisher found that celibacy is also an acceptable choice for men and women. Inmates say that a majority of them don't have sexual relationships but nevertheless the belief in an inner homosexual prevails.
Interviews with inmates also revealed that it is "uncommon" for women inmates to be raped or forced into sex by male or female staff, but personal relationships can develop between sexual relations. Women inmates say they don't engage in sex with a male or female staff member unless women inmates benefit in some material way. Examples include smuggling perfume or cigarettes to women inmates or putting money in an inmate's account, which she may use for canteen items, such as soup, soap and stamps.
Fleisher reports, "Women inmates say they don't tolerate unwanted sex between them and staff, but they have been known to use allegations of unwanted sex to get a prison transfer or to retaliate in a revengeful way against a staff member."
He said that prison officials have learned ways to separate bogus allegations from real acts of unwanted sex.
The implications of the study are extensive for correctional management and include a change in perceptions about the safety of prisons for inmates and the public.
"The study shows that inmates entering prison believe the rape stories they heard in juvenile detention, jails and on the street, just like we do" said Fleisher. "But when they have lived in prison a few months, they see those stories were stereotypical representations of prison life."
He added that while state and federal correctional systems operate separately, American corrections as a whole has a vested interest in conveying the message to the public that sexual violence occurs occasionally in modern prisons. Among the 564 inmates interviews none of them said they feared being raped or felt threatened by unwanted sexual advances.
Ironically, inmates on aggregate praised the efforts of prison administrators and managers to keep prison safer and free of rape. However, inmates report, the ultimate responsibility to stay safe is with them. People in the community buy burglar alarms to stay safe, inmates add, but inside prison there are a range of non-violent social mechanisms that engender personal safety.
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