Researcher Tackles the Taboo: Prison Rape, Sex in Cars

Image Cindy Struckman-Johnson Cindy Struckman-Johnson stands before files at the University of South Dakota that contain the anonymous personal stories from more than 500 men and women who reported sexual coercion in prison.

VERMILLION, S.D. -- In the late 1980s, USD psychology faculty member Cindy Struckman-Johnson, Ph.D., received a request to write a review of a book on the sexual assault of males that would influence the course of her research for years to come.

While reading the book, she noted how little information was included on the rape of men in prisons and decided to do some additional research on her own. After finding the name of an activist on the subject, she contacted him and asked if he had any documentation on the rate of rape in these institutional settings.

“He told me that there was no data and then said, ‘You need to go out and get some,’” Struckman-Johnson said. “I was flabbergasted. I don’t do prisons.”

The social psychology researcher had studied male sexual assault on a college campus but had never considered examining rape in a prison setting. At the same time, she realized that this was the type of behavior that required documentation and research. “It’s taboo and it has to do with sex,” she said. “These are things that very few people are willing to look at.”

Struckman-Johnson doesn’t shy away from studying topics that may seem controversial. Some of her latest research, for example, focuses on sexuality and cars, including a recent study on the effects of having sex while driving. “Sex and cars have gone together since the car was invented,” Struckman-Johnson said.

Her research on prison rape, however, has spanned decades and led her to become an advocate for policies that reduce the occurrence of unwanted sexual contact during incarceration. After researching the topic for her book review, Struckman-Johnson received permission from Nebraska’s corrections officials to survey prisoners and staff in their state prisons. Using anonymous questionnaires, she and her co-researchers found that about 20-22 percent of the male inmates who returned the surveys had reported unwanted sexual contact of any kind and about 1 in 10 had been the victims of oral or anal rape. About 7 percent of the female inmates reported unwanted sexual contact and no one reported rape.

“We produced the first data on unwanted sexual contact from prisoners themselves in 15 years,” Struckman-Johnson said. “We had a prevalence rate.”

This new data caught the attention of various activists around the country, as well as the ire of the Nebraska state prison officials, who tried to discredit the findings. Struckman-Johnson expanded her research to state facilities in other Midwestern states but didn’t reveal the states’ or institutions’ names to avoid another backlash. Again, her findings, compiled with the help of USD psychology students and published in 2000, were similar—about 21 percent of the male inmates reported at least one incident of sexual coercion.

Working alongside human rights activists, prison rape survivors and groups such as the NAACP, Struckman-Johnson joined a coalition that worked to pass the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003 and then served on a commission of nine people charged with creating national standards for reducing prison rape. She said she is proud of her five-year tenure on the commission, where she helped develop 43 “commonsense, humane” standards designed to prevent, detect and respond to sexual abuse in prisons. The commission’s term ended in 2009, but Struckman-Johnson and a few other commissioners stay in contact and monitor the implementation of these voluntary standards nationwide. In October 2015, the group met with U.S. Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason to urge greater adoption of the standards.

On this issue, Struckman-Johnson calls herself an “advocate, not an activist. I am an academic and part of a watchdog group as a former commissioner, but my primary role is one of a researcher.”

Thousands of hard copies of the studies’ questionnaires still line a locked room near her office. Inmates had an opportunity to write their personal stories on parts of the surveys, so Struckman-Johnson said it’s difficult to destroy evidence of these heartbreaking accounts of violent assault.

Such documentation helps researchers in shedding light on a topic many of the public would prefer to ignore, Struckman-Johnson said. “I tell my students that you are never going to know about something unless you ask the hard questions.”

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