WASHINGTON, D.C., October 27, 2010 -- The Department of Justice has squandered an opportunity to address the rampant sexual abuse of detained youth, choosing instead to minimize this crisis. In the executive summary of its new "Report on Sexual Victimization in Juvenile Correctional Facilities," the Department's Review Panel on Prison Rape claims that a recent study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) "indicated that violent sexual assault in juvenile facilities was relatively rare and facility staff, for the most part, did not victimize juvenile offenders."
"In fact," said Lovisa Stannow, Executive Director of Just Detention International, "the BJS estimated that almost one in eight kids behind bars had been sexually victimized during a 12-month period, the vast majority of them -- 80 percent -- by staff whose job it is to keep them safe. Many endured repeated abuse, often more than ten times, and frequently by multiple perpetrators. I simply don't understand how that is 'rare.'"
Testimony from the report makes clear that many youth corrections administrators consider staff sexual abuse of detained youth to be largely consensual, or the result of youth manipulation. The Department of Justice perpetuates that view by insisting that most staff sexual abuse of juveniles is not "violent."
"These are teenagers and children we're talking about," said Stannow, "and corrections staff have immense power over their lives. They can influence when juvenile detainees are released; they can put them in solitary confinement; they can house vulnerable youth with inmates who are known to be violent or sexual predators; they can even deny these kids basic hygiene items. The very notion of any sort of consensual sexual relationship between juveniles and adults in such circumstances is grotesque."
Just Detention International hears daily from survivors of sexual abuse in detention, both youth and adults. In many of their letters, survivors emphasize the fact that they did not put up a fight because they were completely at the mercy of officials. One such survivor, Robin, said, "I did what I was told to do, because I wanted to go home." Another, Toni, explained, "People think rape is rape only when someone has a gun to your head. Prison officials don't need a gun; they already have full control over you." Every act of sexual contact between a staff member and a detainee, under any circumstances, is a crime in all 50 states. If the detainee is a minor, it is also child abuse. The Panel failed to acknowledge these basic legal facts in its report.
This week's report derives from hearings that the Panel held in June 2010 with officials from juvenile facilities identified in the BJS study as having some of the highest and lowest rates of sexual abuse. The Panel heard from two facilities where detainees reported zero sexual abuse -- the Ft. Bellefontaine Campus in Missouri and the Rhode Island Training School -- and three with some of the highest rates of abuse: Pendleton Juvenile Correctional Facility in Indiana, Woodland Hills Youth Development Center in Tennessee, and Corsicana Residential Treatment Center in Texas. At the facilities with the highest rates of abuse, between 26 and 36 percent of youth reported having been victimized in the preceding 12 months.
"The Review Panel's report clearly illustrates the difference in philosophy between facilities with low levels of abuse and those with high levels. Facilities that focus on treating youth with dignity and facilitating their healthy development are safer and more successful. As such, this week's report is much needed. It is unfortunate, however, that the Review Panel didn't use this opportunity to define the problem of sexual abuse of detained youth as the human rights crisis that it is," said Stannow.
While the executive summary minimizes the problem of sexual violence in youth detention and downplays the importance of the landmark Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), the body of the report contains important information and recommendations.
One conclusion of the report is that institutional culture is a key predictor of sexual abuse. The Missouri Department of Youth Services is nationally recognized for the therapeutic model followed in its facilities. Conversely, the Indiana Division of Youth Service's Pendleton Juvenile Correctional Facility relies on a punitive approach, and one in three youth reported sexual victimization there.
The report also highlights the importance of hiring qualified staff and training them properly. It particularly emphasizes the vital role of strong professional boundaries for staff. The BJS study found that 95 percent of abuse reported by male youth was committed by female staff. In light of this, the Panel calls for more research into the dynamics of cross-gender supervision, effective training regimens, and the development of best practices.
The Review Panel's hearings and the BJS study were mandated by PREA, which also called for the development of national standards addressing sexual abuse in detention. A bipartisan commission developed such standards, which were submitted to Attorney General Holder in June 2009. Under the law, Holder had one year to publish a final rule; he missed the deadline, and has not indicated when he will promulgate the regulations.
"We wholeheartedly support the Panel's recommendations for further research," added Stannow. "But we already have a critical set of tools to combat prisoner rape at our disposal -- the national standards that await the Attorney General's approval. It's past time for these measures to become binding on facilities across the country."
Just Detention International is a human rights organization that seeks to end sexual violence in all forms of detention.