Shocking Report Reveals Epidemic of Sexual Abuse in Juvenile Prisons

Human Rights

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:

By sexual contact, we mean sexual intercourse, oral sex, anal sex or any other touching or rubbing of someone else's private parts in a sexual way. By private parts, we mean any part of the body that would be covered by a bathing suit. …
... Sexual contacts can happen to boys as well as girls. People who try to have sexual contact with young people are not always strangers but can be someone they know well like a youth, a staff member, teacher, counselor, or minister. People who try to have sexual contact with young people aren't always men or boys -- they can also be women or girls. And sometimes people try to make young people have sexual contact even if the young person doesn't want to do it.

Among the questions in the same survey were:

-- Have you rubbed another person's penis with your hand or has someone rubbed your penis with their hand?

-- Have you rubbed another person's vagina with your hand?

-- Have you had any other kind of sexual contact with someone at this facility? … What kind of sexual contact was that?

While it isn't strictly physical, and not clearly measured by the NSYC, David notes that staff at the detention facility he works at has a tendency to make graphic comments and gay jokes around the incarcerated youth.

"When around kids, a lot of (staff) say really crude things, a lot of stuff that really pushes the line, and there's not a lot of consequences that I've seen," he said.

Martin, who teaches at the same detention facility as David and also asked that his name not be used, echoed the notion of sexually aggressive language creating a hostile environment.

"There's a lot of talk, a lot of the word 'faggot,'" Martin said. "In our place, we have a lot of very disgusting jokes told by staff to the kids."

Martin added that in his 16 years of employment with this facility, he only heard of one complaint between about sex between a staff member and a youth, who was 16 years old. There was a trial, and the staff was found not guilty.

In another story from Martin, one youth was released from the facility when he turned 21; a short time later, he married a staff member, a female teacher.

"It was legal, technically, but it begs the question if they messed around before he got out," Martin said.

He added that the uneven dynamic between the two is troubling.

"A locked-up person can never be consensual with a worker, who has power over them," Martin said.

It is a crime for staff to have sex with inmates in all 50 states, but such cases are rarely pursued in criminal court, according to The New York Times Book Review.

Whether this first effort to collect comprehensive data on the persistence of sexual abuse of youth undercounts or overcounts the reality, Martin makes the matter plain: "One incident is too many."

The dizzying numbers collected by the NSYC are poised to galvanize a comprehensive response that makes facilities safer. So what, exactly, is to be done?

If Fellner had it her way, much fewer kids would be put into detention centers in the first place.

"There should be a tighter screen on who gets removed from their community," she said, adding that most of the incarcerated youth are nonviolent offenders. In fact, only 34 percent of youth in detention are confined for violent crimes (a number that doesn't count those charged as adults and serving time in prison).

In addition, Fellner would like to see zero tolerance for staff misconduct, as well as other common-sense practices outlined in the PREA report on sexual abuse in U.S. prisons and detention centers. The report outlines practical standards, including screening inmates for their vulnerability to abuse; hiring practices; medical and mental health services; and external audits.

The recommended standards, established by eight commissioners over five years of extensive research, was submitted to Attorney General Eric Holder last June. Holder has until June 23, 2010 to issue a final version of the national standards.

U.S District Judge Reggie B. Walton, the commission chair, addressed how a broader culture change must happen alongside facility improvements if people -- both adults and youth -- can depend upon being physically safe when they are incarcerated.

"… (T)here is an attitude of indifference on the part of a lot of people who feel that just because somebody has committed a crime and they're incarcerated that it's appropriate for them to be abused while they're in detention," said Walton at the press conference that issued the proposed standards.

Fellner, who served on the PREA commission, said that an attitude change among those in charge of detention facilities is crucial.

"People connected to juvenile facilities need to understand that detention isn't intended to be just punitive, but rehabilitative," she said.

It is a notion that calls back to the mission put forth by the first juvenile court in the world, created in Chicago in 1899 by Jane Addams and Hull House, which was intended to act in the best interests of the children before them, serving as "a kind and just parent."

 "It's not a question of we don't know what to do (about abuse of youth)," Fellner said. "It's a question of political will."

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