Qualitative Survey on Rape and Voluntary Sexual Activity in US Prisons (2020)

Summary: The results of a qualitative written survey submitted by 73 state and federal prisoners in the US yield useful information about inmate attitudes and practices. About 30% of our sample report having been involved in consensual sex in prison, a rate consistent with inmate estimates of how prevalent it is. Most inmates are tolerant of such activity, as long as it is discreet and not open, but limitations on privacy in the prison environment and elevated surveillance since the implementation of PREA make it less common in some facilities. Six of the 73 reported having been raped at least once during their confinement, but almost all inmates say that most sex is consensual. False accusations by inmates and consensual relationships between inmates and guards are significant problems. Most gay and bi-sexual inmates believe that a liberalized policy toward consensual sex in prison would lessen tensions and thus improve discipline, but many inmates worry about allowing it in general population due to the homophobic attitudes of some inmates. Our survey does find that about half of the gay or bi-sexual sex offenders feel that the sexual experience they have had in prison has helped expand the range of their sexual attractions beyond an exclusive focus on minors, suggesting that it may have an important rehabilitative effect for certain sex offenders. Even straight offenders report some improvement in their perception of gays as a result of what they have seen in prison. We therefore recommend limited liberalization of enforcement in units that predominantly house sexual minorities and sex offenders, with careful study by prison sociologists and therapeutic staff.

Detailed Report: In the course of 2019, The William A. Percy Foundation solicited information about prison sex from inmates receiving free books through its educational arm, The Insiders’ Bookstore. In the nearly seven years of its operation, The Insiders’ Bookstore has built up a reservoir of trust and good will among literate prisoners of all races, ages, orientations, and offense-types. The survey consisted of an open-ended series of 16 questions. It went out to approximately 400 inmates with their book packages. We received 73 responses, several of them coming from other prisoners who were not previously enrolled in our program, but had an interest in talking about the issue. Some of the answers were very brief, but many were long, detailed, and thoughtful. Our respondents do not form a representative cross-section of the prison population, as prisoners who sign up for free books are by definition literate and intellectually curious, whereas many prisoners are not. Our list includes a number of well-educated or long-time inmates who have keen powers of observation and an ability to write their impressions with clarity and nuance. Our list includes a high proportion of gay/bi-sexual inmates, as well as sex offenders, which makes it particularly valuable for studies like this one.

Of the 73 respondents, 39 are sex offenders, 26 were incarcerated for something else, and we do not know the offense of the other eight. 42 are white, 24 non-white, and seven of unknown ethnicity. 41 were straight men (a Kinsey 0 or 1 on scales evaluating both attractions and behavior prior to incarceration), 15 bi-sexual men (a Kinsey 2-4), and 13 gay men (a Kinsey 5-6), plus one lesbian female. At least four identify as “in some degree transgender or gender-queer.” Different age ranges were well-represented by inmates from their 20s to 70s.

Prevalence of Sexual Activity

Although they were not directly asked whether they had participated in sex during the period of their incarceration, 22 (about 30%) volunteered that they had done so, including at least four who were straight-identified in their life before prison. Nine said they had never personally witnessed people having sex (or about to have sex) in prison, but had heard about it. All the rest said they had witnessed it. These results confirm that it is going on frequently and all inmates know about it, despite being officially against the rules in all U.S. prisons.

Respondents were asked to estimate the percentage of inmates in their unit who were sexually active in prison. These estimates vary widely, from as low as 1-2% to as high as 96%. Respondents who have been in more than one facility say that the prevalence depends on the particular unit they are in: some have little opportunity for privacy due to ubiquitous cameras or dormitory-style sleeping arrangements, some face stricter enforcement by guards or have higher proportions of gay and bi-sexual inmates. One inmate who has been continuously incarcerated since 1984 said it was much more common prior to PREA (the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003), suggesting heightened official surveillance and penalization of voluntary sex. The median of the estimates by gay and bi-sexual prisoners was 25%, by straight prisoners 30%. We might be justified in thinking that the estimates of the former group are more accurate, given their higher participation in prison sexual culture. A couple of prisoners have noted that the ethnic group most likely to be sexually active in prison are foreign-born (but not US-born) Hispanics.


All but one of the respondents said that most sex was consensual, although several noted that some younger prisoners engaged in sex for barter due to their lack of financial support. Most of the prisoners said nonconsensual sex was uncommon in their facility, but a couple estimated very high incidence of rape (one said 25% of inmates were victims, another said four coercive incidents occurred each week, mainly perpetrated by female guards). Varying estimates may in part be due to different definitions of sexual victimization, a problem that has also made comparison of academic studies of rape incidence difficult (see the items in Section II of our Literature Review). Most inmates do not consider it rape if a prisoner is forced into sex to pay off debts that he has neglected. Long-time inmates say it was more common prior to PREA, however one such inmate said he was familiar with only six cases in 50 years. In facilities where it is still common, inmates blame the influence of gangs.

Six of the respondents said that they had themselves been raped, one of those while in a juvenile facility; one said rape is more common in county jails. One prisoner told us the story of a young man who had a disabling stroke soon after his incarceration and was assigned an inmate attendant to help him with his daily life activities; the attendant and his friends regularly raped the helpless young man every day. The prisoner who observed this wrote an anonymous letter to the judge who sent the young man to prison; this resulted in his being transferred for six months, only to return to the same facility and then face the same ordeal all over again.

Numerous respondents say that false allegations of rape are more frequent than actual rapes: common scenarios for false accusations were when two inmates were caught having sex consensually and one tried to evade punishment by claiming it was rape, or when an inmate wanted revenge on a former lover or someone he was trying to extort. Gay inmates are suspected of crying rape to get reassigned to a “Protective Custody” unit. One inmate said he was falsely accused by his cell-mate because the cell-mate wanted the other space in his cell for his lover.

Most inmates credit PREA for making the problem of rape less prevalent than it was rumored to have been in the past, and say that complaints are handled properly by putting both the accused and the victim into administrative segregation (solitary confinement) for up to 30 days while the matter is investigated; most prisons have “protective custody” yards to which genuine victims and other vulnerable populations are transferred. However, a significant number of respondents (17) said that victims would also be punished by the response, losing good jobs or program opportunities available only to general population. Those who report rapes are commonly considered “snitches,” but some inmates say this name should only apply to people who report sexual activity in which they are not personally involved. A handful of inmates said more bad than good comes from reporting one’s own rape: not being believed, being accused of “wanting it” by prison guards, facing retaliation by gangs if the rapist were a gang-member, being left subject to harm while a slow and bureaucratic process investigates the matter. The prevalence of false allegations or trivial complaints (e.g. paranoid inmates who repeatedly complain that they don’t like the way someone looks at them) doubtless make the job of prison officials more difficult.

Sexual Relations with Prison Staff

Sexual involvement of corrections officers with inmates is another phenomenon that is seriously disruptive of prison order and discipline. 23 inmates said they had never heard of such activity in their facility, but a number of others had heard rumors about it, although it is difficult to judge the veracity of the incidents. Two inmates reported that sexual abuse by guards (and even a chaplain) was more common when they were in juvenile detention facilities, as was widely reported in the Texas youth corrections system over a decade ago. The sergeant in a safe-keeping unit (with many gay inmates) was rumored to force residents to give him oral sex. Another rumor concerned the Sex Offender Management Program coordinator with one of the sex offenders under their supervision. Two inmates said they were sexually assaulted by a female guard.

More of the alleged relations were consensual, particularly between female guards and male inmates, but also between male guards and transgender inmates. Prisoners could gain special treatment from guards who desire such relations, possibly including distribution of contraband in some cases. Such relations are dangerous, because they raise the potential for blackmailing guards, who will be fired if detected by their superiors, but as with rape, false accusations are sometimes weaponized against a particular guard that an inmate might dislike. One informant told us that male inmates whose sexual overtures had been rejected by a female guard will attempt to expose or impugn her friendly relations with other inmates.

It is apparently common for male prisoners to masturbate openly in front of female guards, even if they are not particularly attractive, possibly as a form of harassment. Most female guards ignore it, but some are alleged to enjoy watching it. Some inmates complain about guards staring at them when they take showers or use the toilet. Others complain about receiving overly intimate pat-downs by female or gay male guards. It is difficult to evaluate the validity of these complaints, as the behavior described may not be sexually motivated but legitimate exercise of due diligence.

Venues and Modalities of Consensual Sex

Where, how, and with whom does consensual sex occur? By far the most common place (named by 45 inmates) is inside prisoners’ cells, when the cell-mate is gone for a regular work assignment or if the cell-mate is willing to collaborate by going away for a while. Some prison guards are known to be lazy and not perform regular 30-minute walk-around checks; inmates will also time their encounters for right after the guard has done his last check. Sometimes a friend or cell-mate will act as a lookout to signal that a guard has entered the area. Frequently, prisoners will hang a towel over the window in the cell door or suspend sheets over a bunk bed for greater privacy.

However, not all prisons house inmates in cells: overcrowding results in many facilities having to use large dormitories that house 100 or more residents in tightly packed bunk beds. Other facilities have bunk beds in hallways. Some prisoners tell us that two inmates will arrange to skip a meal and remain behind in the dormitory while everyone else is in the mess hall. In such facilities, prisoners will most frequently use individual shower stalls (named by 34 inmates); most showers have partitions, rather than being open multi-use gang showers. Inmates may also use toilet stalls, particularly at night (mentioned by 12). Other places where inmates seek privacy for sex include storage closets (9), the chapel (5), corners in workplaces, the library, or the barber shop (each mentioned by one inmate).

At least four inmates said no privacy was possible anywhere in their facility due to the ubiquity of cameras (even in bathrooms) and “snitches” who curry favor with the guards by looking into cells (or other known rendez-vous spots) and then informing the guard if something is going on. Protective Custody units tend to house professional informants along with other vulnerable populations including gay and trans prisoners, sex offenders, and former police. In cases where no privacy is possible, some inmates will go so far as to have sex more or less openly in the recreation yard, usually in or behind the bleachers. Prison officials understandably want to minimize inmate privacy, because hidden spaces that might be used for sex could also be used for other proscribed activities, such as drugs.

One might assume that gay and bi-sexual men are those most likely to pursue sex in prison, but it is well known that men who were entirely straight in their outside lives will also seek release with identifiably gay or trans inmates. Those serving life sentences and others who never expect to be released are the most likely to abandon their former identity. Child sex offenders tend to cultivate relationships with the youngest inmates in the facility, and many straight-identified men see nothing inconsistent in pursuing other males if they are transgender or effeminate. Many prisoners tell us that the feminine or gay-identified sometimes initiate the relationship, particularly if they can target an older inmate who is known to have financial resources and able to give them support with commissary. Some engage in unabashed prostitution within the prison, using postage stamps as an Ersatz-currency.

One gay inmate complained, “the more physically repugnant you are, the more sexually active you are.” He said straight inmates feel more comfortable approaching older or unattractive gays because they are less likely to be embarrassed with rejection and gossip, and just want quick relief (usually oral sex) rather than an openly recognized relationship with an attractive “trophy wife.” They may also think that spending time with a younger and more attractive gay inmate will provoke suspicions, whereas friendship with an older and less attractive one will be less suspect.

Most straight inmates insist on absolute discretion from their partners, as they do not want other straight inmates knowing that they are on the “down low.” Straight inmates who refuse to become sexually involved with other males look down upon other straights who deviate from the path as weak and incontinent; if a gang member is detected receiving oral sex from another man, he may be punished for violating the gang code. Some straight inmates are so anxious to conceal their secret life that they will loudly voice homophobic sentiments in front of other inmates or even beat up gay inmates with whom they have been involved. Members of the Nation of Islam openly condemn homosexuality, but often pursue sex with known gay inmates. Despite their straight partners’ paranoia about exposure, many gays enjoy gossiping among themselves about which straight men they have “turned out.”

Reactions to Gays and Gay Sex in the Prison Environment

Inmates were asked how the corrections officers respond if they come upon inmates involved in consensual sex. Most (45) said the participants would receive a disciplinary write-up and would be moved separately to higher security units for 30 days or more. Sanctions would be particularly severe if an inmate were HIV+. A minority reported more lenient responses: just admonishing them to quit (8), pretending not to see (4), or watching voyeuristically and saying nothing (2). Some prisoners reported that guards would not only issue a write-up, but make a public scene or tell other inmates about it in order to humiliate the participants.

Inmates were asked whether they themselves were offended by others engaging in sex, or tolerant of the activity. Most (19 straight inmates, 15 gay or bi-sexual) said they were tolerant, as long as the activity was discreet and not public. However, some (10 straight inmates, 3 gay or bi-sexual) said they were offended, especially if it was done in the wrong place or too obvious. One observed that younger inmates (under the age of 30) tended to be the most blatant, and needed to be reminded to seek privacy. Some of the straight inmates who were offended said that it was because they had negative moral judgments about homosexuality; others admitted they were just jealous that gays were able to have sex in prison, and thought it unfair that straight inmates could not have conjugal visits or pornography to fulfill their needs. At least seven inmates responding to our survey voiced sentiments generally condemnatory of gays or gay sex. One resented the cost of medical treatment offered to inmates electing gender transition when necessary medical care for inmates is so inadequate. Some gay inmates said that the loudest complaints about sex came from either “snitches” courting favor with prison staff or ex-gay religious converts.

Inmates were also asked whether they thought a more liberal policy toward gay sex in prison would reduce tensions or create more problems. Unsurprisingly, most gay and bi-sexual inmates favored a relaxed policy and most straight inmates thought it would create more problems. However, a significant minority of each population (8 of the 26 straights who responded to this question, 7 of the 24 gays) held the contrary view. Some of the gay and bi-sexual inmates said open tolerance of sex could only work in an all-gay wing, but would trigger too much homophobia and conflict in general population, because straights would resent sex in which they could not participate. Others worried that gangs would become involved in controlling prostitution rackets within the prison, and that trans inmates would be more vulnerable to exploitation if sex were officially permitted. One inmate who was a nurse before incarceration expressed concern about HIV and STIs in prison, and said a more liberal policy would have to include availability of condoms, which are currently banned in most prisons. Several inmates worried that more open and public relationships would trigger quarrels and fights, noting that men who have landed in prison almost by definition have problems with self-control and immoderation. One inmate said a more liberal regime would necessitate having specially trained guards in those units where sex was permitted. This question elicited a number of thoughtful and balanced responses. To work, any change in policy would need to take such inmate concerns into account.

GLBT prisoners were specifically asked whether they felt protected or victimized in their present prison environment. By a narrow margin, slightly more felt satisfied that the system protected them, particularly if they were housed in a special gay or Protective Custody wing. One older prisoner who had also served a term back in the 1970s said conditions were much worse for imprisoned gays then, especially with reference to abuse by guards. Most male guards are still considered homophobic, but inmates at one facility in South Texas reported that the majority of the male guards there were themselves gay. Female guards and staff, on the other hand, are reported to prefer working with gay male prisoners, who are both less personally threatening to them and less likely to be the source of false accusations of impropriety. One gay inmate said that the presence of many gays in the same unit offers a sense of “family” and security, as well as guidance to new inmates, but another worried that the viciousness of gay and trans “drama queens” toward each other creates a negative image of the community in the eyes of the straight inmates and prison officials.

Can the Prison Experience Change Sexual Attitudes and Orientation?

One of the most interesting questions into which our survey yields insight is whether prisoners’ experience with gay sex changes their own attractions and behavior in a positive way that can improve their conduct after release. Although most straight inmates did not indicate any change in the way they viewed gay people, those who did report a change in opinion more often said they will leave prison with less homophobia and more acceptance of gay people, after getting to know them better in prison. One Texas inmate who was 100% straight before prison says he now considers himself bi-sexual and will continue to be after his release. An inmate who was a closeted bi-sexual male in a small town before prison, and became involved in a sex offense with two minors, has through his prison experiences come out first as gay and then as transgender, is now much more self-confident and selective in partners, and plans to sustain that practice after prison. Another inmate who used to feel guilty over his gay feelings says that he is now much more comfortable with them. On the other side, the one female inmate in our study, who previously identified as lesbian, says she now feels less inclined to it after what she has seen in the women’s prison. Other inmates comment on their experiences giving them a better understanding of gender fluidity, hypersexuality, and compulsive behaviors; many say that what they have seen in prison will make them more cautious about safe sex and avoiding casual hook-ups. Clearly, the existence of sexuality in prisons fosters an environment in which some inmates learn important lessons about themselves and others that will help them become better sexual citizens after release.

For a more detailed account of prisoners’ responses, please contact us.

Conclusions and Recommendations

That gay sex in prison might have a rehabilitative effect for a substantial number of gay or bi-sexual sex offenders is a possibility worthy of further investigation, perhaps including controlled experimentation by enlightened prison administrators. In the early 1970s, a progressive Clinical Director of the Atascadero State Hospital in California, which housed mainly pedophiles, developed a program to retrain men oriented to male or female children how to court or cruise adult partners of their preferred sex. Dr. Michael Serber was convinced that pedophilic behavior stemmed principally from low self-esteem and social awkwardness with age-equal partners. His program included “how to” demonstrations of social interactions, assertiveness training, and role-playing exercises with attractive student volunteers, including the Gay Students Association at a local university (M. Serber & C. G. Keith, “The Atascadero Project: Model of a Sexual Retraining Program for Incarcerated Homosexual Pedophiles.” Journal of Homosexuality 1.1 [1974] 92-97). Unfortunately, Dr. Serber died soon after beginning this pilot project, so the long-term continuity and follow-up necessary to measure the program’s success or failure in its 25 participants never materialized.

Our general conclusion, based on the responses to this survey, is that loosening restrictions on consensual sexual relationships may yield more benefit than harm in selected minimum security populations. Driving natural human urges underground through policies of strict prohibition creates more secrecy and thus more potential for abuse, not less. Permitting inmates to form stable emotional relationships with one another, share cells with their partners, and continue those relationships post-release (made difficult by terms of parole prohibiting association with other felons) can provide needed stability and enhance prospects of law-abiding social re-integration. Condoms and condom-compatible lubricants should be provided in prison commissaries or health clinics; studies have shown that their availability protects public health, but does not affect the amount of sex going on in prisons or produce other disciplinary problems (see T. Butler, J. Richters, L. Yap, & B. Donovan. “Condoms for prisoners: No evidence that they increase sex in prison, but they increase safe sex.” British Medical Journal: Epidemiology 89 [2013] 377–379). Prisoners who are deemed “vulnerable” by prison officials or who have made allegations of sexual assault that are confirmed after proper investigation should not be given “Protective Custody” that resembles punitive solitary confinement, but should be assigned to a Special Housing Unit with privileges that are not inferior to what the prisoner enjoyed previously. Failure to do so discourages reporting abuse and thereby encourages more abuse.