South Dakota prison researcher confronts taboos

Cindy Struckman-Johnson helped pass the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003.
Cindy Struckman-Johnson helped pass the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003. | File photo

Cindy Struckman-Johnson was “flabbergasted” to find that a dearth of data on institutional rape required fieldwork on her part, but knew as a University of South Dakota social psychology researcher that the subject required study.

That was in the 1980s, when she was immersed in writing a book review about sexual assault of males. Struckman-Johnson had studied the subject in the context of college campuses but crossed a new threshold by deciding to document the incidence of rape in prisons.

The faculty member was not squeamish, having previously written about controversial subjects. When she recently assessed the relationship between sexuality and vehicles, she said “Sex and cars have gone together since the car was invented.”

Her prison rape study followed a wide arc, lasting decades and charting her path as an advocate for prison safety. She and her colleagues surveyed Nebraska correctional facilities to find that more than one fifth of male inmates questioned reported unwanted sexual contact, while one-10th experienced oral or anal rape. (Comparatively, only 7 percent of female prisoners reported unwanted contact, while 52 percent noted anal or vaginal rape.)

Struckman-Johnson subsequently expanded her research, helped to pass the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003, and became instrumental in achieving national standards to reduce prison rape, serving a five-year commission membership until 2009 and remaining involved.

The academic pioneer views herself as an advocate rather than an activist, stating that while she remains part of a watchdog group, she is primarily a researcher — but one that’s unafraid to confront taboos.

“I tell my students that you are never going to know about something unless you ask the hard questions,” she said.

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