Professor Brenda Smith - "Prison Rape at/and the Intersection of Gender, Crime, and Sexuality"

Faculty Scholarship Highlight, September 2013


For Professor Brenda Smith, one need not look far to see how the problem of prison rape—and the intersection of gender, crime, and sexuality that it represents—has repeatedly manifested itself in her professional practice as a lawyer and her scholarly work. As she has explained, although “[i]t is well known that sexual abuse occurs within the correctional system,” the fact “[t]hat female correctional staff commit a significant proportion of that sexual abuse is met with discomfort bordering on disbelief.” And the result of this discomfort has been a virtually non-existent discourse concerning abuse of men and boys in custody by female correctional workers, even as there have been widely reported public scandals involving misconduct by such corrections officers, including the Baltimore scandal that culminated in the filing of criminal charges against 13 guards in April 2013.

Enter, Professor Smith. In addition to her teaching responsibilities in AUWCL's Community Economic Development Law Clinic, her role as Project Director for the Project on Addressing Prison Rape, and her appointment to the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, Professor Smith has also devoted her academic scholarship to raising awareness of-and proposing ways for the state and federal governments to address-this understudied and underappreciated phenomenon.

To that end, in the first piece of a three-part series, Professor Smith introduced these issues in “Uncomfortable Places, Close Spaces: Female Correctional Workers’ Sexual Interactions With Men and Boys in Custody,” in the UCLA Law Review. The second piece, published this spring in the FIU Law Review, looked more specifically at “Female Correctional Workers and the Challenge to Employment Law” after and in light of the Supreme Court’s 1977 decision in Dothard v. Rawlinson. And the culmination of the project is Professor Smith’s work-in-progress, which addresses sexual victimization of boys in custody by female staff—and how issues of consent and victimization color public reporting of, and responses to, such victimization. In the process, Professor Smith’s work epitomizes the cross-fertilization between practice and theory that so often characterizes the most useful academic work, with a very specific goal: That, “having illuminated the issue, we can become more comfortable with seeing women as powerful and capable but also create space for them to be imperfect.”

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