Sandusky runs risk of sexual assault in prison
Because of who he is and what he’s done, Jerry Sandusky could be
in particular danger of sexual assault when he is sent off to
prison this week.
With thousands of inmates raped behind bars in the U.S. each
year, statistics compiled by the federal government show that sex
offenders are roughly two to four times more likely than other
inmates to fall victim.
Sandusky, the 68-year-old former Penn State assistant football
coach, will be sentenced Tuesday for sexually abusing 10 boys in a
scandal that rocked the university and brought down coach Joe
Paterno. Sandusky is likely to spend the rest of his life in
It’s entirely possible that he will serve his time without
incident. His lawyer, Joe Amendola, said he expects Sandusky will
be housed with nonviolent offenders at a minimum-security prison,
and the Pennsylvania Corrections Department said it is committed to
the safety of all inmates, though it would not comment on what it
plans to do to protect Sandusky.
But it’s also true that child molesters are reviled inside
prison walls just as they are on the outside, and are often
subjected to physical and verbal abuse, including sexual assault.
Given the horrific nature of Sandusky’s crimes, will the public
care what happens to him in prison?
”The Sandusky case is one of those moments when our core
beliefs are really tested,” said Lovisa Stannow, executive
director of Just Detention International, a group that fights
prison rape. ”This is a moment when it’s especially crucial to
recognize that nobody ever deserves to be raped. No matter who you
are, sexual violence and rape is wrong, it’s a crime, and it is
something we have to fight.”
The U.S. corrections industry has long struggled with sexual
In 2008, more than 200,000 inmates in American prisons, jails
and juvenile detention centers were victims of sexual abuse,
according to the Justice Department. Male sex offenders were among
those at highest risk: Nearly 14 percent reported having been
sexually assaulted at least once while incarcerated.
Yet experts say rape isn’t an unavoidable consequence of prison
life. Justice Department statistics show wide variability in rates
of sexual abuse across prisons and jails. Wardens who are committed
to ending sexual violence, establishing clear policies against
abuse and holding their staffs accountable are likely to see fewer
”It’s all about management tone and style and leadership at the
top. If you hear about abuse and sort of roll your eyes and look
the other way, that sends a signal. If you tell the staff, `I want
to get to the bottom of this,’ that sends a signal,” said Jamie
Fellner, a prisons expert at Human Rights Watch.
In some ways, Sandusky, who has been held in isolation in a
county jail since he was found guilty in June, is not a prime
target for assault. Inmates who are young and small in stature are
more likely to be sexually victimized; Sandusky is a senior citizen
with an imposing frame. Other inmates at high risk include gay men,
those who have been previously victimized and those seen as timid
A convicted sex offender who spent 10 years in prison and now
works with other released sex offenders through the Pennsylvania
Prison Society said he believes Sandusky’s chances of assault are
”Are people going to bother him? Yeah, but a lot of it’s going
to be verbal harassment – it’s not going to be physical,” said the
52-year-old man from the Philadelphia suburbs, who spoke on
condition of anonymity because of the stigma attached to sex
offenses. ”Because again, he’s an old guy; people aren’t into
that. The verbal abuse is probably going to be significant. He’s
going to have to have a thick skin.”
Lockups in Pennsylvania and across the nation are under a
federal mandate to curb sexual abuse.
The rules, which took effect in August under the Prison Rape
Elimination Act of 2003, require screening to identify inmates at
greater risk of sexual assault – and those more likely to sexually
offend – with an eye toward keeping them apart in housing and work
Prisons must also offer at least two means of reporting abuse,
preserve evidence, ban retaliation against whistle-blowers, keep
juvenile offenders away from adult inmates, and devise plans for
adequate staffing and video monitoring. The presumptive punishment
for any staffer found to have sexually abused an inmate is
”You had corrections officials saying it’s not so bad, it’s not
so bad, it’s not so bad, and then you had the data saying it IS so
bad, it is a problem, it is prevalent,” said Fellner, who sat on
the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, the panel charged
by Congress with devising the new standards. ”I think at this
point, everybody understands this is serious.”
Pennsylvania’s policy for preventing sexual abuse dates to 2004.
New inmates must be screened, and anyone determined to be at
greater risk of sexual victimization is supposed to get his or her
own cell, or be placed in protective custody or in a special unit
for inmates in danger. Pennsylvania prisons hold about 6,800 sex
”Inmates and their families should know that we do our utmost
to provide for inmate safety,” said Corrections Department
spokeswoman Susan McNaughton.
But a scandal unfolding at the state prison in Pittsburgh shows
that any policy is only as good as the people enforcing it. And
prisons have a long way to go in that regard. The national Justice
Department survey found that nearly as many inmates were victimized
by prison staff as by fellow inmates.
In the Pennsylvania case, prosecutors and lawsuits allege
systematic abuse of inmates serving time for sex crimes against
children. The suspected ringleader, veteran guard Harry Nicoletti,
faces 89 criminal counts after a grand jury concluded he raped and
beat inmates, directed other prisoners to soil the food and bedding
of his targets, and committed other abuses while working in the
prison’s F Block, for new inmates.
Nicoletti, 60, and three other guards charged in the case assert
they did nothing wrong and accuse the inmates of lying. The
defendants are awaiting trial.
The Corrections Department is compiling data on sexual assault
in its prisons and has hired a contractor to study conditions
Amendola, Sandusky’s attorney, said he hopes his client won’t
become a statistic.
”I suspect they’re going to take precautions against that,” he
Associated Press writer Mark Scolforo in Harrisburg contributed
to this report.