This post originally appeared on VICE.com and is part of VICE magazine’s Prison Issue.
President Obama recently criticized American culture for being one in which prison-rape jokes are socially acceptable. During these remarks, he made the case that those who find themselves incarcerated should have the opportunity to reflect on their lives, recognize their errors, and make plans for a better and more productive future.
But fear of harm and actual experiences with violence during incarceration fly in the face of this goal and undermine one of the primary purposes of serving time: rehabilitation. Individuals in prisons and jails have a fundamental right to personal safety, and anything contrary to that violates their constitutionally and statutorily granted rights. Moreover, it stands to reason that safety from assault is a necessary precondition for rehabilitation.
Yet according to the National Inmate Survey, from 2011 to 2012 about 4 percent of state and federal prisoners and 3 percent of local jail inmates reported being sexually victimized by another inmate or by facility staff. And rates of sexual victimization of youth in juvenile facilities are more than double those of adults in custody. According to the National Survey of Youth in Custody, about 10 percent of adjudicated youth in facilities reported experiencing one or more incidents of sexual victimization in 2012.
While we know far less about rates of other types of violence behind bars, one survey of about 7,200 incarcerated adult men and women found that 21 percent said they experienced inmate-on-inmate physical harm—including being threatened or harmed with a knife or shank and being slapped, hit, kicked, or bitten.
What can we do to make facilities safe so that inmates are free to pursue activities conducive to self-betterment? One place to start is physical design. Opportunities to commit violence behind bars can be reduced through architectural features that afford greater visibility to inmates both in cells and common areas, as well as securing objects and areas that can become tools of and venues for violence. We visited one jail where we learned that simple steps, such as securing the cleaning closet and removing the broom handles, did the trick.
Such design and security features should also incorporate safety-enhancing technology like surveillance cameras. Our own research on preventing violence in jail facilities found that cells can be particularly vulnerable locations for violence, self-harm, and contraband. While cameras can't point directly into cells for privacy reasons, strategically placing cameras in blind spots and other vulnerable areas yielded greater inmate perceptions of personal safety.
But it's not just the physical environment that makes correctional facilities safe—it's the people who work there. In a study of jail inmates with mental health issues, the leading suggestion about enhancing safety was to improve the quality of staff. We've found that training staff in how to identify inmates in crisis and direct them to treatment and services can have a positive impact on how they approach their jobs and interact with inmates. Corrections administrators should seek ways to train, motivate, and incentivize officers to approach their jobs with the highest degree of professionalism and develop accountability and performance measures.
Inmates also have a role to play in preventing violence. Based on efforts to reduce sexual assault on college campuses, we know that bystander-intervention trainings have shown some success. Similar approaches might be adapted for prison, jail, and juvenile facilities. These trainings could teach inmates how to prevent or interrupt situations before or as they happen and may help create a culture that rejects sexual violence. Critical to this approach would be to provide inmates a safe and confidential way to report concerns to facility staff—without fear of reprisal or retaliation—if they are not comfortable themselves intervening.
Regardless of what got them there, all those who find themselves behind bars have a basic human right to serve their sentences in a safe environment. In order to place rehabilitation at the core of the incarceration experience, facilities must adopt appropriate design, personnel, procedures, and training to ensure that everyone who enters and exits is safe from harm and has a chance at moving toward a better future.