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Shocking Report Reveals Epidemic of Sexual Abuse in Juvenile Prisons

A new report says more than one out of every 10 child prisoners in state custody are molested or raped.

An unprecedented report released last month by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) has revealed some disturbing statistics about sexual abuse in U.S. juvenile detention facilities. Twelve percent of youth held in such facilities say that they have been sexually abused over the course of one year. Or, to put it another way, more than 1 in 10 of young people under state supervision are molested and/or raped. Nearly all of these incidents involve a staff member (about 85 percent), while the rest involve another incarcerated youth.

According to the study, male prisoners were more likely than females to report sexual activity with facility staff, but less likely than females to report forced sexual activity with other youth. Surprisingly, a whopping 95 percent of all youth reporting staff sexual misconduct said they had been victimized by female staff members. In the most troubling facilities, between 20 and 30 percent of incarcerated youth reported abuse.

These stunning figures have come to light thanks to a provision within the National Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) of 2003, which included a mandate to produce such a study. Officially dubbed the National Survey of Youth in Custody (NSYC), the report limited its data to incidents occurring in the previous 12 months, or since the youth's admission to the facility if he or she had been in custody for fewer than 12 months. While nearly 93,000 people are held in a juvenile detention center on any given day in the U.S., the survey does not represent those held for a short time, those held in small facilities, or young people who are held in adult facilities. This survey includes responses from nearly 200 juvenile facilities, with an estimated total of 10,000 interviews with youth.

Jamie Fellner, senior counsel with Human Rights Watch, said that having a comprehensive report like this one is crucial to grasping a horrific problem.

"(The high rate of abuse) is symptomatic of a detention system that does not serve the rehabilitative purpose for which it is designed," said Fellner. "States put the youth there, and (the youth) don't come with any political or social clout. So who pays attention to them? No one but their families, if that."

Fellner added that the reported rates of sexual abuse are much higher in juvenile facilities than adult prisons, which she attributed to the fact that kids are less likely to be able defend themselves.

A notoriously difficult problem to gauge, the NSYC struggles against the tendency of some youth to not report abuse they've experienced, even when they are promised anonymity. At the same time, some youth make false or inflated claims, or may not have a clear understanding of what is being asked of them.

Fellner said it's her hunch that even the high reported numbers undercount the actual rate of abuse.

"If one in three kids are being abused at one facility, why in the world would they go to officials of the facility that's abusing them, that hasn't helped them, to report it?" Fellner asked.

But David, who teaches at a Michigan detention facility -- and who asked that his real name not be used in this article -- said that he was surprised at the high rate of abuse revealed by the NSYC.

"I know there's a lot of individual sexual activity between youth, but most of it is what you'd probably call consensual, unless you want to get into age stuff," David said.

He added that he is, however, familiar with one youth "grooming" another -- that is, latching onto them and setting them up for a sexual encounter. David has also noticed that "some female staff that really like to flirt with the boys," a phenomenon that he described as "really pathetic."

"If I had to go with my gut feeling about how often (abuse) happens, I'd say it's way less (than the report indicates)," David said. "You do have to wonder how kids define sexual activity when asked about it."

The BJS survey, which collected responses using a touch-screen laptop and audio feed in a private setting, used different questionnaires for youth of different ages. Ninety-eight percent of the interviews were conducted in English; 2 percent were in Spanish.

The surveys for older youth read: