Today in difficult-to-fathom statistics: sexual abuse is actually more prevalent on college campuses than it is inside U.S. prisons—if information cited by the White House is to be believed. Even crazier: male college students are in greater danger than male inmates.
Since that doesn't actually make a lot of sense, perhaps we should be questioning whether the reports are underreporting prison rape, overreporting college rape, or both.
A recent White House report, "Economic Perspectives on Incarceration and the Criminal Justice System," claims that 8.5 percent of women in prison suffer sexual abuse. About half of these assaults are perpetrated by other inmates; the slight majority are perpetrated by prison staff. The citation for this information is the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Compare that White House report with this one from January 2014, which asserts that college-aged women are particularly vulnerable to sexual assault. "1 in 5 women has been sexually assaulted while in college," it claims.
So 8.5 percent of female prison inmates are sexually abused while behind bars, but a whopping 20 percent of female college students are sexually assaulted during their time on campus, according to the federal government. Does this make any sense? Could it possibly be the case that college is more dangerous than prison?
There is a possible explanation: men commit most sexual assaults. College campuses are full of men. Women's prisons are not. Therefore, it's not so strange that rapes are more likely on campus than in prison.
But this explanation seems lacking when one considers the data on sexual assaults against men. Oft-cited surveys published by The Washington Post / Kaiser Foundation and the Association of American Universities put the college male victimization rate at between 5 and 8 percent. The sexual assault rate for male prison inmates, however, is 3.7 percent, according to the White House report.
In other words, the sexual assault rate for men in prison is half what it is for male college students.
Perhaps I can accept that women's prisons are safer than colleges. But I have a very difficult time believing that male prisons are significantly safer—for men—than university campuses are. Try taking that idea to its logical conclusion. Imagine the parents of a young man who has been sentenced to four years in a federal penitentiary: instead of crying, they should breathe a sigh of relief and say, "At least he wasn't admitted to Harvard."
The idea that a college acceptance letter is more likely to imply forthcoming sexual abuse than a prison sentence seems preposterous to me. It makes me wonder if there could possibly be something wrong with the way we survey sexual violence on campuses. [Related: Junk Science and Campus Rape]
(Thanks to the American Enterprise Institute's Mark Perry for drawing my attention to the White House report on prison rape.)
Updated at 9:30 a.m. on April 29: On Twitter, someone points out that the two statistics do measure different time periods: four years of college versus a single year in prison. Still, the idea that a year of prison is the safer of the two options (for men!) confounds me.