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Assault by prison workers often goes unpunished, study finds

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

There's a new study from the Justice Department, and I'll warn you, it's about sexual assault. The study finds that prison workers who assault the people in their custody rarely face legal consequences. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has our report.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The Justice Department findings are based on cases where assaults by corrections workers have been reported, investigated and substantiated.

LINDA MCFARLANE: That's a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the sexual abuse that's happening inside of our prisons and jails.

JOHNSON: Linda McFarlane leads Just Detention International. Her nonprofit group works to end sexual abuse in all forms of detention. McFarlane says most incarcerated people are afraid to report because corrections workers have so much power over them.

MCFARLANE: I've worked with sexual assault survivors in one way or another for more than 30 years. And almost every survivor who I've ever spoken to who made a report said the reason they did it was not for themselves but so that someone else wouldn't get hurt.

JOHNSON: But a new report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics highlights how few consequences the abusers face. Perpetrators face legal action, like arrest, referral for prosecution or guilty pleas, in fewer than 4 in 10 incidents. Emily Buehler, who works at the BJS, says the study found incarcerated survivors don't get much help.

EMILY BUEHLER: Only 36% of incidents of either staff sexual misconduct or staff sexual harassment resulted in the victim being provided counseling or mental health treatment. And in nearly 40% of incidents, there was no medical treatment either offered or provided for the victim.

JOHNSON: In recent years, the Justice Department has investigated women's prisons in New Jersey and Florida, finding sexual violence there violated prisoners' constitutional rights and amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.