A special thank you to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape (PCAR) for allowing MCASA to utilize PCAR’s advocacy document entitled Working with Victims who are Inmates (by Hallie Martyniuk, 2013) to provide a Prison Rape Elimination Act resource for Maryland rape crisis centers.  PCAR’s original document and other resources are available at pcar.org.

Working with Victims who are Inmates

Working with inmate sexual assault victims is different from working with any other victim population and not everyone is cut out for this work. What follows are some things to consider before working with this population:

1. Does the idea of entering a prison make you uncomfortable?

If it does, you are not alone. Many people feel very uncomfortable entering a corrections facility. When entering a prison, you are entering a world that in completely unknown and unrecognizable. People are kept in ‘cages,’ every door has a lock, the facilities are very noisy and can be, for some claustrophobic.

2. Are you uncomfortable with confined spaces?

3. Are you willing to accept that the victim/inmate may try to take advantage of you? Can you balance providing him or her support while still being cautious of manipulation?

4. Are you?

  • Easily befriended
  • Overly friendly or overly familiar with most people
  • Naïve to intentions or hidden messages
  • Gullible to stories
  • Susceptible to the you/me syndrome
  • Sympathetic to others’ problems so much so that rules seem secondary
  • Timid

5. Do you?

  • Know how to handle compliments in a business-like manner
  • Share personal problems
  • Have a trusting nature
  • Believe what you are told without checking on the validity of the information
  • Have a desire to help the underdog
  • Return favor for favor
  • Have difficulty taking command or control
  • Ignore slightly personal or embarrassing remarks and forget instead of directly and immediately addressing them
  • Have difficulty saying no
  • Circumvent minor rules

6. Can you?

  • Be made to feel obligated
  • Be made to look the other way or pretend not to notice if the rule being violated is “no big thing”

Interestingly some of the above traits are exactly the same traits that employers look for when hiring sexual assault advocates. Being kind, empathetic, and having a trusting nature and a desire to help people is a strength in the eyes of the employer but can be seen as a weakness in the eyes of the inmates. Answering yes to the above questions does not mean you need to change your approach, it just means that you should proceed with caution and be open to alternative approaches with inmates.

Counseling within the Corrections Facility

The PREA Compliance Manager at the institution will work with you to arrange a day and time for you to counsel the inmate victim. Remember that the inmate must request a visit with a sexual assault advocate. The advocate cannot initiate the visit.

The PREA Compliance Manager will arrange for you to have a gate pass. When you visit the facility, your identification will be checked to ensure that it matches the information provided by the PREA Compliance Manager.

The PREA Compliance Manager is the main point of contact for the community-based advocate. The PREA Compliance Manager will accompany the victim throughout the institution’s internal response to the assault and then notify the community-based sexual assault program that a victim is being brought to the hospital for an examination. Following the assault, the PREA Compliance Manager will be the person who will set up counseling sessions between the sexual assault advocate and the inmate victim.

Contact Visits

If an inmate is in general population, he/she is allowed to have visits in the visiting area that is supervised by facility staff. Limited physical contact is allowed during these visits. The inmate is not restrained during contact visits; however he/she are strip searched before and after the visit.

Sexual assault advocates will not be permitted contact visits the first time they visit a victim-inmate. This is for the safety of the advocate and is designed to the help the advocate get acclimated to the prison environment in a more secure setting. The advocate may request a contact visit after the initial meeting.


Make sure that you have proper identification when you arrive at the facility or you will not be able to visit. You will need photo identification, such as a driver’s license, passport, or government identification card.

You will be asked to sign in upon your arrival and again upon departure. You will be asked for identification so signatures can be compared. You will be asked to provide the make of your vehicle and license plate number.

When visitors enter a prison, they are only allowed to retain their identification and car keys. Sexual assault advocates will be permitted to bring paper, a pen or pencil, worksheets and brochures, in addition to these items. Anything you bring into the institution should be cleared with the PREA Compliance Manager prior to your visit.


When you visit the facility you need to be aware of what you are wearing. Remember that you will have to go through a metal detector similar to airport security. The metal detectors at the institutions are very sensitive and may signal for metal snaps on clothing, underwire bras, body piercings, jewelry, etc. If this is the case, the security officer will use a hand-held wand.

Use common sense when dressing to visit a prison. Wear clothing in which you are comfortable, but nothing that will call inappropriate attention to you, such as short skirts, low-cut blouses, tank-tops, etc.

Telephone Calls

The inmate is permitted to make phone calls depending on his/her location and custody level. Depending on the facility, an inmate may make phone calls by calling collect, using a prepaid phone card, or prepaying from his/her account or through pin numbers. Generally, inmates are assigned specified hours for use of the telephone and are given a specified amount of time to talk.

The Importance of Building Your Credibility

Correctional facilities have their own store, laundry, school, doctors, dentists, a worship facility, food service, psychiatrists, teachers, counselors, drug and alcohol programs, sexual assault programs, policies, and procedures. When possible, individual institutions prefer to handle everything “in house.” As an advocate, coming from “the outside,” you may meet resistance.

Prisons are militaristic environments with the simple objective of custody, care, and control of the inmate population. Sexual assault advocates, coming from an empowerment philosophy, may be seen as ‘bleeding hearts,’ ‘tissue carriers,’ or potential problems. Advocates are trained to believe crime victims, unless proven differently. Institution staff works with a population of convicted criminals who are known to manipulate the truth to their advantage. Corrections staff cannot afford to believe what an inmate says at face value.

To build successful collaborations with corrections facilities and to build your own credibility, advocates must familiarize themselves with the very different world of corrections. Here are some suggestions to help you with that process:

  1. Ask questions

You don’t lose credibility by asking, you lose credibility by assuming incorrectly.

  1. Take a tour of the facility

Prisons are a complete unknown for most people; take the time to see and understand the environment where corrections staff work and where inmates live before you are asked to go into the institution to see a victim.

  1. Learn everything you can about how the institutions operate

Ask all the questions you can before you enter the institution for an in-person visit. A tour of the facility is a wonderful opportunity for you to ask questions.

  1. Develop personal relationships with corrections staff, particularly members of the institute-based SART (when applicable)

The PREA Compliance Manager is going to be your main point of contact within the prison when offering services to a victim-offender. Get to know the Compliance Manager, understand their schedule, and learn about what they do and how they do it. Make sure to discuss the best method of communication. Typically, administration has voicemail and access to email from outside of the institution. However, not all positions have access to one or both.

In addition, some positions within the corrections facility – such as administration, psychology, counseling – have set schedules with regular work week hours of 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. Other positions – such as medical or corrections officers – may work shifts that vary. It is important to discuss schedules for the best coordinated response.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Does everyone who works in the prison wear a uniform?

No. Within the prison you will find three groups: uniformed staff, ‘white shirts,’ and staff that wear street clothes.

What is the prison staff hierarchy?

The prison hierarchy is very similar to the military and law enforcement. From the top to the bottom you will find the following hierarchy within the individual institutions:

Uniformed Officers:

  • Correction Officers in Training (COT)
  • Correction Officers (CO1)
  • Unit Sergeants (CO2)
  • Lieutenants (CO3)

White Shirts

  • Captains (CO4) – identified by two bars on shoulders
  • Major (CO5) – gold eagle on hat and collar

Plain Clothes

  • Deputy Superintendent
  • Centralized Services (treatment staff)/ Facilities Management
  • Superintendent

Is it true that inmate sexual assault victims will lie about an assault?

There is no simple answer to this question. As advocates, we believe sexual assault victims are telling the truth, unless evidence to the contrary. We recognize that for a variety of reasons, sexual assault victims occasionally may not be completely truthful about all the details of an assault. Within the community, a sexual assault victim may lie to cover up his/her participation in illegal activities (such as drug involvement) or to cover-up infidelity. This is no different in prison. However, when working with inmate sexual assault victims, you need to be extra cautious. It may sound terrible to say, but prisoners can be extremely manipulative. They may make up stories of assaults to have their cell changed, to get back at someone, or to avoid being labeled homosexual.

That is NOT to say that sexual assault doesn’t happen in prisons, but you must be aware of the difference in the population when working with prisoners. Even when sexual assault accusations are real, inmates may use the situation to their advantage. For example, they may try to use the opportunity they have to see an advocate as a chance to talk about things other than the assault. Advocates must be aware of the possibility of manipulation, and try to distinguish this from a victim-offender needing to discuss other issues in order to relax enough/gain trust to share their sexual assault experience.

What is unique about sexual assault in prison?

Incarcerated sexual assault victims can experience the same traumatic effects as other sexual assault victims (sleep disturbances, anxiety, depression, self-blame, physical soreness and injury, etc.). The differences result from the environment in which they live.

Within the prison environment, it is difficult to protect a victim’s privacy. Lack of privacy can impact the victim’s ability to heal in the prison environment. There are few places for a victim to go to cry, process the events, and be alone with shared living and working space.

Separating the victim from the offender may be difficult. Although a sexual assault victim should not be placed back in a cell with his/her alleged perpetrator, if is virtually impossible for him/her to avoid the perpetrator entirely unless one of them is transferred to another institution.

The concept of being “a snitch” is very much a part of prison culture. Within prison there are two groups, staff and inmates. This translates into a ‘them or us’ mentality. When an inmate reports a sexual assault they are opening themselves up to harassment from the offender, the offender’s friends, or fellow gang members. The concept of retribution is alive and well within prison walls and reporting a sexual assault can, at times, be risky business.

Prison rape victims are away from their friends and family and have little or no support system. This is one area where a sexual assault advocate can be particularly helpful. By providing the victim someone to talk to about the assault. The advocate is giving him/her an opportunity for compassion and support.

Victims may have concerns for their safety after a report of sexual assault. He/she may feel that there are no safe locations. If an inmate sexual assault victim is in fear for their own safety, it is important you advise prison staff immediately. (See the section on confidentiality and the release of information for more on this topic.)

A victim’s emotional reactions to the assault may be exacerbated by the prison environment. This is an area where the sexual assault advocate should collaborate with the prison staff (through your contact, the PREA Compliance Manager, counselors, etc.) to meet the victim’s needs for mental health services to assist him/her in dealing with the assault.

Male prisons are hyper-masculine environments where feelings of “helplessness and powerlessness” are not acceptable. If the sexual assaults are male on male, they are further complicated by the stigma of homosexuality. Fear of being viewed as homosexual may be a barrier to reporting for two reasons: concerns about the stigma and also concerns that if they report the assault, the assault will be viewed by security and staff as a homosexual.

What is it like in there?

Prisons can be noisy. Some individuals may find it claustrophobic, due to the fact that a locked door may not be opened until another is closed. This can necessitate you standing briefly in relatively small spaces in between locked doors.

In many cases it will not be necessary for you to walk through areas in which you will be with the general prison population, but it is possible. If you do go into the prison you may see inmates walking from one place to another without prison staff. However, you will always be accompanied by prison staff and your safety will not be an issue. It has been said that it is safer in prisons then outside of them. This is referring to the extent of the custody and control that exists and the fact that at least on the “inside” you know who the “bad guys” are.

You may be faced with cat calls, similar to walking by construction sites. Prisoners do this for attention. The best advice is to ignore their behavior.